Cost keeps sex offenders away from U, but residents still wonder who’s next door

by Koran Addo

Graduate student Melissa Hansen said working at a sexual assault center inspired her to check her neighborhood for sex offenders.

She also said the Dru Sjodin case – in which authorities believe a sex offender kidnapped the University of North Dakota student two and a half weeks ago – has made her paranoid. It has also put other University students on alert.

Hansen found no sex offenders in her neighborhood during her search of the Department of Corrections Web site, and none are listed for any of the neighborhoods surrounding the University, including Marcy-Holmes, Southeast Como and Prospect Park.

But Paul Tingry, supervisor of the Hennepin County Community Sex Offender Program, said this does not mean there are no offenders there.

“There are sex offenders on probation in the community,” Tingry said. “You could have a sex offender living next door and not know it.”

Although about 14,000 sex offenders are registered in Minnesota, the community is only notified about Level 3 offenders. Those offenders are also the only ones listed on the Web site.

Level 3 offenders are those determined the “most likely to re-offend” by a group of officials, psychologists and victim advocates who evaluate offenders for four months before they are released. The assessment, based on prison records, chemical dependency and sex offender treatment success, places them in Level 1, low risk; Level 2, moderate risk; and Level 3.

Sixty Level 3 sex offenders live in Hennepin County, but Tingry said this is not always indicative of risk because not all Level 3 offenders re-offend.

Still aware

Bill Donnay, interim director of the risk assessment and community notification unit for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said Level 1 and Level 2 sex offenders are not listed for privacy reasons.

However, he said, neighborhood law enforcement officials know where they live and are notified when they move there.

There are no restrictions on where most sex offenders can live, and Tingry said they are responsible for finding their own housing.

But he added that sex offenders might avoid living near the University because of the housing situation.

“It’s economics, probably,” Donnay said. “The University has low vacancy and high rent. Offenders being released from prison cannot be competitive in that sort of market.”

Donnay said supervisors can also place conditions on offenders’ releases. For example, sex offenders described as pedophiles cannot live with children.

Jon Hinchliff, sexual offender notification coordinator for the Minneapolis Police Department, said sex offenders have a high concentration in the Jordan and Phillips neighborhoods, where rent is generally lower.

He said sex offenders also tend to live together in houses because many landlords do not want to rent to them.

“It is hard for them to find places to live,” Hinchliff said. “The criminal justice system can’t tell people where to live, and they have a hard time finding places anyway, so they tend to cluster together.”

Alerting the community

Before Level 3 sex offenders are released in a community, police notify neighborhood residents.

At a community meeting organized by law enforcement officials, residents receive the offender’s picture, background information and a brief description of the suspect’s crime.

The sex crime victims or witnesses can request to be notified by letter before the offender is released from prison, Hinchliff said.

He added that most Level 3 sex offenders go through one year of intense supervised release during which corrections agents can show up unannounced day or night. He also said Level 3 sex offenders convicted after 2000 are monitored for life.

Tingry said under special circumstances police will notify schools and daycares about Level 2 sex offenders.

Unrelenting worry

Although neighborhood leaders said they could not recall ever being notified of a Level 3 offender, some students are still concerned.

First-year student Megan Sutliff said she is afraid to ride city buses by herself or walk alone at night after Sjodin’s abduction.

University senior Maxine Ford said she is also on heightened awareness, but would not consider moving if a sex offender lived next door to her.

“I’m always aware of what’s going on around me. I carry pepper spray and I have my keys out all the time when I go somewhere,” she said.

Tingry said more than 80 percent of sexual assault victims know their offenders, which means offenders are less likely to assault strangers.

Hinchliff added that students can take precautions to calm fears.

“Always try to walk with other people, or at least in areas where there are a lot of people around, especially at night,” Hinchliff said.