Sex offender debate neglects inner-city neighborhoods’ burden

The governor and Legislature’s discussion about what to do with Level 3 sex offenders – sparked by the abduction of Dru Sjodin – fails to acknowledge the concentration of Level 3 sex offenders residing in neighborhoods already riddled with problems.

The largest percentage of Level 3 offenders in Minneapolis lives in impacted neighborhoods such as the Phillips in south Minneapolis and Jordan in north Minneapolis.

Instead of advocating for the death penalty, we need to consider what to do with offenders who have been released, where they live now and how this disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities and areas with the greatest percentages of children under age 17. We also need more corrections officers.

Last February, my wife and I bought a house in Jordan. Before closing on the property, we learned from the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ Web site that six Level 3 offenders lived on the two-block section of James Avenue. An additional Web site run by the Fourth Ward CARE Task Force includes Level 3 offenders not listed on the Department of Corrections’ Web site who live on the same two-block section. Total, there are 10 offenders living on our two-block section.

We bought our home knowing this. We understand that wherever you live, you have to be smart. Nevertheless, although my wife and I go on the Web sites to see photographs of the offenders, we never see them in our neighborhood and do not know their exact location. That is far more worrisome to us and our neighbors. Perhaps this is why there are at least five or six houses on my block that are for sale. How long will those houses sit?

Twenty-one of Minneapolis’ 81 neighborhoods contain the city’s 56 Level 3 sex offenders, according to the Department of Corrections’ Web site (the Star Tribune reported there are 115 in the city). The Jordan and Phillips neighborhoods, which make up 8 percent of Minneapolis’ population, have 22 offenders or 40 percent of Minneapolis’ offenders. By comparison, Elk River has just one Level 3 sex offender. St. Paul has 16 offenders.

The cavalier attitude of the Minnesota Legislature on this issue is alarming. Since 1999, State Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, working with Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, and others, has attempted to pass bills that would restrict the number of released offenders living in impacted neighborhoods – those that already bear a disproportionate share of society’s burdens.

Mullery has also attempted to restrict the number of offenders who live near each other or within a few blocks of parks, schools and day-care facilities. In the Jordan neighborhood, more than 52 percent of the population near Level 3 sex offenders consists of children, according to Census 2000. Most sex offenders’ homes in Jordan overlook Cottage Park, where children catch the bus and play. There are at least two child-care facilities or schools within two blocks of the offenders on my street. In light of all this, Mullery has still been largely unsuccessful because of the efforts of both Democrats and Republicans.

One long-time Jordan resident recently told me, “I think the problem is that our Legislature doesn’t give a rat’s patoot about this issue until it hits their neighborhood. Notice how quickly the policy changed on releasing criminal sexual psychopaths from a state mental hospital when our governor found one living in Eagan, his own backyard.”

To counter the argument that it is easier to keep tabs on offenders if they are all in one area, she vehemently said, “Fine. Make that area in Lino Lakes or Oak Park Heights, not Jordan or north Minneapolis.”

It is about time to create a class-action lawsuit against the state of Minnesota, the governor and our elected officials for their willingness to subject a minority of the state’s population to the Level 3 sex offender burden.

Joel T. Helfrich is a columnist. Send comments to [email protected]