About 80 St. Paul residents turned out Wednesday night for a tense public hearing on the imminent release of a twice-convicted rapist into their neighborhood.

The St. Paul Police Department and state officials unveiled details of a plan to release Oliver Lenell Dority, 50, currently confined in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP), to a large halfway house in the Summit-University district.

Dority was sent to prison in 1995 after being convicted of raping two women, both strangers to him. The first woman was sexually assaulted after he hid in the back seat of her car at a gas station. Three weeks later, he raped a woman whom he met at a bar. After completing his prison term, he was confined in MSOP, and last month, a three-judge panel ruled that Dority had shown enough progress in treatment to be moved to a less-restrictive setting in the community.

Anxious-looking residents, many huddled in their parkas, began showing up for Wednesday's hearing half an hour before the program, filling nearly every seat in a frigid church meeting hall. Most asked pointed security-related questions, such as why Dority was being moved to a home within blocks of a playground, how many staff would be monitoring him, and what they should do if Dority was spotted outside the halfway house.

One woman, who said she can see directly into Dority's new residence from the windows of her St. Paul home, said she became anxious after reading police reports involving his assaults. In both cases, Dority subdued women using violent force, in one case with a pocketknife.

Dority is scheduled to move next week to a large halfway house at 532 Ashland Av. in St. Paul. Established in 1978, the remodeled stone facility houses 30 to 40 former prison inmates, with a cross-section of criminal offenses, attempting to make their transition back into community life. The house is owned and operated by RS Eden, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that provides prisoner re-entry programs at three sites across the Twin Cities.

Like all the residents at the house, known as "Reentry Ashland," Dority will be subject to tight surveillance and rigid rules. No one is allowed to leave the residence without first notifying staff, and they must call in regularly while they are gone. If a resident disappears or strays too far from his approved destination, law enforcement officials are contacted immediately. While in the house, residents are subject to hourly checks and occasional searches by staff.

While the house is located on a residential street, safety incidents have been "virtually nonexistent," said Dan Cain, president of RS Eden. On average, about two to three residents slip away from the house each year, but they are detected before a crime occurs. Since RS Eden's formation in 2000, not a single crime has been committed by a person who has run away from the house on Ashland Avenue, Cain said.

"Someone said something unfortunate to a next-door neighbor a few years ago and they were back in prison within two hours," said Steve Bisch, program director at the halfway house, at the hearing. "[Dority] will be under more scrutiny than any of our other residents."

Dority is among a growing number of convicted offenders being approved by judicial panels for release from the MSOP, which confines about 725 offenders at secure facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Last June, a federal judge declared the program unconstitutional for detaining offenders indefinitely. Though that ruling is under appeal, the MSOP has accelerated the pace at which offenders move through treatment.

At the hearing, MSOP officials tried to assuage fears by emphasizing that offenders who go through years of treatment like Dority are far less likely to commit sexual crimes again than those who go untreated and undetected.

As many legal experts point out, MSOP offenders are often guilty of less-serious sex crimes than hundreds of other offenders who have been released from state prisons and are now living in the community. Currently, some 365 "Level Three" offenders live in homes and apartments across the state, with neighbors often oblivious to their presence.

"It's important to keep this in perspective," said Eric Janus, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul and author of a book on sex commitment laws said. "A person like [Dority] not only has gone through a huge number of hoops to be even considered for release, but he also will be under supervision that is orders of magnitude more intense than many, many other sex offenders who are in the community."

Even so, the accelerated pace of MSOP releases may arouse community opposition. All told, six offenders have been approved by state courts for conditional discharge from MSOP within the past 14 months, an unprecedented rate. By comparison, just two were approved in the program's previous 20-year history.

And dozens more offenders are in the final stages of treatment, nearing release. The state has dramatically increased the size of its special program, known as Community Preparation Services, designed to reintegrate offenders at MSOP back into the community. A record 58 offenders are now in this program, compared with just 32 a year ago, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308