Neighbors’ fears should be taken seriously

I am pleased that such a lively discussion has developed regarding the Portland Halfway house, which is what I hoped the Daily articles would foster. But in light of some recent commentary, some response is necessary to reiterate what this issue is about, what it is not about, and to set the record straight.
The fundamental question was this and only this: Should a halfway house for convicted criminals be located in our campus community?
As I have stated in the past, there is nothing wrong with efforts and programs to rehabilitate convicted criminals. However, programs such as halfway houses pose risks to the community, especially to high-risk, high-crime communities like ours. To minimize risk, the house should be moved, not eliminated. Also, establishing “two-way communication” has always been a goal. Current contact with a member of the Portland House Board will hopefully lead to fruitful discussion of the matter.
There is a very specific reason why this situation poses a risk. Last January the Minnesota State Legislature released a comprehensive crime study. According to this report, nearly two-thirds of Minnesota’s ex-convicts are arrested again within three years of their release from prison. The highest re-offense rates were for property criminals, the kind of people admitted to Portland House.
Aside from first time sex offenders, program participation has little effect on the re-offense rates of criminals. Sixty percent to 65 percent of Portland House residents are sent back to prison before completing their program, despite the “close monitoring” of the residents. If this “close monitoring” is so effective, why can’t it stop the violations and illegal activity?
In the last two weeks, there have been articles in one of the local papers about two different people who escaped from Minneapolis area halfway houses, though not Portland House. One of these escaped male residents went on to rape and nearly kill a recent University graduate while on the run.
The risk is real. Just because something terrible has not yet happened because of Portland House does not mean we should remain passive. If something bad happens to a University student, and we could have prevented it, it will not sit well on my conscience.
Unfortunately, the Daily and some of its readers have misinterpreted the real issue. This is not a “greek” issue. It does not matter that the people who brought this problem to public attention are in the greek system. The Daily headline should not have read “Sorority objects to halfway house.” The difficulty is the same regardless of whether the persons who are having problems with the Portland House are in a sorority or are a group of renters. This is a campuswide safety issue. Furthermore, not all members of the greek community are opposed to the house, as was observed by Briesler and Laitinen.
Frankly, Amanda Goetzman and Stephanie Thompson’s Friday opinion column was cause for outrage. Calling the sorority house the “true bad neighbor” is absurd. This is simply a cheap shot at a group of concerned student citizens. Their column, by calling these women “closed-minded, hypocritical, paranoid and lacking in human compassion,” implies that the sorority women are worse than the residents of Portland House. I am not an elitist, but I guarantee these women have not been convicted of any crimes, have not caused injury and loss to any victims and are fellow students. Goetzman and Thompson seem to bend over backward for the convicts, making them the “victims,” whereas normal college students are the villains. Talk about not living in the real world.
Roberto De Freita’s arguments are likewise objectionable on at least three points. First, race is not at all relevant to this issue. All that matters is that the probability of re-offense among criminals of any race is high, and our campus community is ripe with opportunity to commit crime. His commentary was totally off the original issue. Second, I am not a racist as he implied. His accusation that a minority like myself “resonates” that spirit of racism through American law and culture is absurd. Third, his next accusation that I look at criminals without concern for their rights is false. Last summer, I worked in a public defender’s office. Through Minnesota’s student practice rule, I represented more than 100 criminal defendants in court proceedings, advocating for them zealously.
However, these people have not “paid their debt to society” as I read in several letters. According to the Department of Corrections, these residents get to live there for eight months prior to their release dates from prison. Despite being convicted and sentenced to a specific prison term, they are being given an early release. In the alternative, some of the residents are on work release from local jails. These are privileges, not rights. We should focus less on the “rights” of convicted criminals and more on their victims.
I remain committed to my position on this issue. But, I will no longer debate it the press, and I hope that anyone who continues this discussion will focus on the real issue. Finally, do not criticize those who brought this issue to public attention, they are not the criminals. I would like to personally apologize to these women, who have endured insensitive, uncalled-for bad publicity. Whether you agree with me on this issue or not, I am only trying to protect the safety of my fellow campus community residents.
Robert Fowler is a second-year law student and a Republican candidate for State House District 59B.