Most of them are under intense supervision and get daily to weekly check-ins by police and probation agents. Any slip-up, from drinking to having the wrong store catalog to losing their job so they can’t afford rent, can result in being sent back to prison.
It’s why Cheryl McCluskey, the landlord of the Golden Valley Road and Thomas Avenue apartment buildings, calls sex offenders “my better residents” in the past four years she’s rented to them.
Two offenders interviewed at one of her buildings said they felt more comfortable living in the relative anonymity of the North Side, rather than face the public shaming that other sex offenders did when they tried to move to wealthier neighborhoods.
Then there is this stark reality, said John Menke, the assistant director for the Ramsey County Community Corrections Department: Finding any home for sex offenders, even if that means putting them in just a few neighborhoods, is safer than having them homeless. As of last week, 33 Level Three offenders had no place to live, could go anywhere they wanted in the state, and were unmonitored, save for a weekly check-in with law enforcement.
“The worst thing in the world is to not know where they are,” Menke said.
Backlash outside the cities
The Department of Corrections (DOC) has all but stopped trying to find homes for Level Three sex offenders in the Minnesota cities that have imposed far-reaching restrictions on where they can live. Most of those cities adopted similarly written ordinances that ban these people from living within 1,000 to 2,000 feet of schools, parks, bus stops or “places children are known to congregate.”
After a homeless offender camped near Moose Lake in 2010, city leaders there passed an ordinance banning camping on city property.
Duluth is the only city that enacted restrictions but still has Level Three sex offenders living there. The result has been a cluster of 10 offenders mostly living in two neighborhoods, said Duluth police investigator Tait Erickson.
The Department of Corrections, citing a study it conducted in 2007, says laws like those in Wyoming do nothing to prevent offenders from reoffending and may be making the problem worse by lulling residents into a false sense of security.
And if more cities pass those laws, “it’s just pushing these offenders to other towns nearby,” said Bill Donnay, the DOC’s risk assessment director.
Some communities that don’t have those restrictions still manage to prevent offenders from moving in.
Last year, Mankato area landlord Gene Lewis received a call from the DOC asking whether he would rent to Level Three offender Gregory Eugene Ward, who has a history of exposing himself and fondling children and adults, and a 1995 conviction for attacking a female stranger and attempting to rape her.
Lewis said he had an apartment in the country near St. Peter, about a quarter-mile from any other home. He knew of no children nearby. But when the community learned about Ward in September, Lewis said he received more than 100 e-mails and phone calls, some asking why he hated children, others saying he’d be responsible if anything happened to someone in the community, some threatening to kill him and his wife.
More than 300 people attended the community notification meeting, where some people wept. Others shouted at Lewis and the corrections staff.
“I felt fortunate that I weighed 350 pounds, because if I was little I would have been scared,” Lewis said.
Lewis changed his mind after he learned that there were children living about a quarter-mile away. The state paid to put Ward in the Scott County jail until the DOC helped him find an apartment in Savage in a mostly commercial area.
That ended what Ward described to the Star Tribune as a yearlong struggle trying to find a place to live. He was supposed to be released in February 2012, but the other times when DOC or friends and family found him a place to live, the landlords backed out. Now to stay out of jail he needs to find work to pay for the apartment, which is being funded by the DOC for 60 days. That won’t be easy, he said, considering he doesn’t have a car, wears an ankle bracelet, and carries the “stigma” of a Level Three offender.