Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Sex-offender residency bill clears committee

Mike Mosedale//March 31, 2016

Sex-offender residency bill clears committee

Mike Mosedale//March 31, 2016

A politically charged proposal to let counties, cities and towns enact stricter residency rules for high-risk sex offenders has cleared its first legislative hurdle at the Capitol.

Jim Newberger
Jim Newberger

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said the measure isn’t intended to ban offenders from municipalities but, rather, to give local officials more say in where they live.

“We’re simply trying to say the people who live in those communities know those communities best,” Newberger told fellow members of House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, which approved the measure on a voice vote Tuesday.

At the same time, Newberger brushed aside criticisms that his legislation could prove counterproductive and, possibly, vulnerable to legal challenge.

“Is there a perfect answer? No, there isn’t. Is the plan we currently have in place working? No, it isn’t,” he said. “I think it’s time we resort to some local control.”

If passed, Newberger’s proposal would specifically authorize counties, cities, and towns to enact “more restrictive ordinances regulating the proximity of the residence of level III offenders to other level III offenders, and to schools, parks, and other locations frequented by children.”

Under the existing law, probation officials are required to consider only “the proximity of the offender’s residence to that of other level III offenders and proximity to schools” when approving placement plans. The statute is silent on the subject of local ordinances.

Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, said the proposal would simply let more communities enact de facto bans on sex offenders. He called the claims to the contrary “disingenuous.”

As a member of the Mankato City Council, Considine acknowledged, he voted for a sex offender residency ordinance. That ordinance, he said, “basically outlawed” offenders from living in the city.

But the most vigorous pushback came from Tom Roy, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, who pointed out that numerous studies, both in Minnesota and nationally, have concluded that sex offender residence restrictions don’t work.

On the contrary, Roy said, restrictions can increase recidivism because they often force offenders to move away from support systems. Those who are unable to find housing often become homeless, which makes them more difficult to supervise and more likely to reoffend, he added.

Roy also raised the specter of legal challenges should the bill pass.

Across the country, he noted, courts are becoming more skeptical about the constitutionality and efficacy of such residency restrictions for sex offenders.

Last year, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that all local sex offender ordinances in the state are preempted by state law (which does not provide for any restrictions), while courts in California and Michigan struck down parts of those state’s residency rules.

But while the legal landscape may be shifting, that hasn’t slowed the push for more restrictions in Minnesota, where about 40 municipalities have passed local ordinances.

“If residency requirements don’t work, where’s the agency bill abolishing them?” Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, asked Roy.

Roy responded that there have been “internal discussions” at the DOC about how to best to respond to the increase in such ordinances, which have doubled over the past year. “If we don’t deal with it, we can expect the courts weigh in on this one for sure,” he ventured.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, complained that Roy wasn’t looking at the whole picture.

“What you’re not taking into account is peace of mind of people in the community,” he said. “You’ve got to think about home property values. You’ve got to think about the mother who worries about her kids walking to the playground. They really don’t pay much attention to your statistics about recidivism.”

Cornish also criticized Roy over the placement of two sex offenders in his largely rural district.

“You folks aren’t doing a bang-up job right now of placing these folks,” he said. As an example, Cornish cited the case of “a black guy, a level III sex offender” who was placed in Minnesota Lake, which he described as a “totally white Anglo town.”

“How that could have happened I don’t know,” Cornish said.

The racially tinged soliloquy elicited an exasperated “Wow” from Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis. While Dehn didn’t offer a further critique of Cornish’s remarks, he urged committee members to consider the possibility the legislation could prove counterproductive.

If Minneapolis were to enact a residency restriction ordinance based on proximity to parks, he pointed out, the city could effectively foist its disproportionate share of predatory offenders on the rest of the state.

Noting that Brooklyn Center City Council enacted its own residency restriction for sex offenders on Monday, Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, asked Roy why probation officials no longer place predatory offenders in several ZIP codes in north Minneapolis, which she said has caused some offenders to settle in nearby Brooklyn Center.

Roy said that decision was made by Hennepin County probation officials, not by the DOC. When pressed by Hilstrom, Roy said the DOC has “a very robust process” to review offender release plans and opined that residency restrictions ought to be abolished.

For his part, Dehn noted that Hennepin County stopped placing offenders in several north Minneapolis neighborhoods only because the concentrations were already so high.

It was left to Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, to acknowledge the elephant in the room: In an election year, it might prove difficult for lawmakers to cast a vote against Newberger’s bill.

“This bill is all about emotion and politically we’ll all probably have to support it because that’s what we’ve got to do,” Schoen said. “But we’re opening up a can of worms here.”

“Where are we gonna put them? Where are they gonna go? What if Minneapolis decides to change their mind and says, ‘The heck with you Minnesota, take these 120-some sex offenders?’” he said. “We’ve got to make some tough decisions and they’re not always politically expedient.”

In his closing remarks, Commissioner Roy gave lawmakers a statistical overview of the problem. As of January, he said, there were 450 level III offenders living in communities across Minnesota, 155 of whom are under supervision. For such “high-risk” offenders, he said, the recidivism rate within three years hovers between 5 and 7 percent.

But, he added, residency restrictions on offenders don’t provide protection because, in about 95 percent of all sexual assaults, the victims are acquainted with their assailants.

“It’s going to be the baby sitter, the teacher, the coach, the clergy, the uncle or the brother — people who you know,” Roy said. “As families or as communities, we shouldn’t think this is the solution to sexual offenses.”



Top News

See All Top News

Legal calendar

Click here to see upcoming Minnesota events

Expert Testimony

See All Expert Testimony