The operator of a group home in Dayton, Minn., has backed out of plans to house three convicted rapists set for release from Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program, dealing another setback to state efforts to move more offenders into the community.
City Council members in Dayton, a rural community of about 5,000 residents northwest of the Twin Cities, received notice Tuesday from REM Minnesota Inc. that it will not provide housing for the three men, who already have been cleared for conditional release from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
The decision comes after Dayton residents raised alarms about their safety last week and the city adopted a far-reaching ordinance that bars sex offenders from living near a host of places where children congregate and effectively renders more than half the city off-limits to sex offenders.
A spokeswoman for REM Minnesota issued a statement saying it would comply with the ordinance and already had informed state officials that it would not accept the three offenders, who had been approved for transition to the group home.
Communities across Minnesota have been rushing to pass such ordinances since a federal judge last year ruled that the MSOP is unconstitutional and ordered the state to develop more housing options and release offenders who no longer require confinement.
The Dayton City Council passed the sweeping ordinance, which even prevents offenders from living near seasonal pumpkin patches and apple orchards, despite concerns that it may draw a legal challenge.
“There is pride in how the community pulled together and how fast we were able to respond to the situation,” said Dayton Mayor Tim McNeil. “Now, the big question is: Did we go too far in the eyes of those who have the ability to sue us?”
The state of Minnesota is under mounting court pressure to demonstrate that it operates a functional treatment program that provides offenders with a clear path toward release. At the same time, communities are pushing back against a possible influx of offenders: Roughly 50 jurisdictions statewide have enacted ordinances that restrict where sex offenders can live.
The ordinances place the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees the MSOP, in a difficult spot. If the agency seeks community input before attempting to move offenders, local governments can rush to pass restrictions before such a move can occur. Yet without local outreach, the state faces criticism for being secretive.
In late September, for instance, DHS informed officials in Le Sueur County that it was considering plans to move six MSOP offenders to a residence in Kasota Township, near St. Peter. Neighbors barraged the owner of the fourplex with telephone calls and e-mails, prompting him to pull out of the deal. Now the county is considering a sweeping ordinance that would bar offenders from living near a long list of public spaces.
“I’m all about second chances,” said Steven Rohlfing, a Le Sueur County commissioner. “But these sexual predators took away the dignity from a lot of individuals, and it’s not clear that they will ever recover.”
The local ordinances were quite narrow at first but have grown much broader. The proposed ordinance in Le Sueur County, for example, would bar offenders from living near bus stops, public trails, gyms, libraries, public beaches, hockey rinks and churches, among other areas. Le Sueur’s ordinance would even prohibit offenders from living near a privately owned property that is equipped for children’s play.
Critics argue that the laws force offenders into homelessness, which makes it more difficult for law enforcement to track them. Courts in other states have struck down residency restrictions when they too closely resemble “blanket bans” against offenders. Even so, the laws remain largely unchallenged in Minnesota; which means a growing number of detainees at MSOP’s secure treatment center in St. Peter who have been cleared for release remain stuck at the facility.
Asked if it is considering a challenge to the local ordinances, DHS said in a statement: “We face the challenge of running a constitutional program that provides safety, security and treatment. In this effort, we cannot rule out any option prematurely.”