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Keeping society safe from sex offenders

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There are three convicted sex offenders living in the house at 802 N. Fifth St. in Grand Forks.

One had sex with a 16-year-old and was caught with child pornography. Another had sex with a girl while she was passed out and later admitted to having sex with a 5-year-old. A third abused a child from age 6 to 8.

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Their landlord, Jim Deitz, said he knew they were sex offenders but still chose to rent to them.

“I like giving a chance to people, you know?” Deitz said. “When they get out, no one wants to rent to them, and people don’t understand (that) these people are watched more than anybody. I actually tell people they’re better renters than most of my other renters.”

Deitz is a rarity among owners of rental properties. Companies like Goldmark Property Management and IRET Properties refuse to rent to sex offenders out of sensitivity to what other tenants might think.

But those responsible for transitioning convicted sex offenders to life outside prison say that a stable housing situation helps reduce turmoil in their lives and makes it less likely that they will reoffend. It’s also easier to track and monitor them when they have a fixed address.

“If they’re put in a situation where they’re forced to live in cars or live on the streets, that’s going to increase risk,” said Chad Johnson, a sex offender specialist with state Probation and Parole Services’ Grand Forks office. “The fact is they’re going to be in our community either way, so it’s very important that we try to transition people into a safe and stable setting. That’s going to make the community safer as a whole.”

Housing is but one step in that transition, however, but it is a key step that provides a stable foundation for the rest.

Keeping track

There are currently 110 registered sex offenders living, working or incarcerated in Grand Forks County, 87 of them in the city of Grand Forks, according to North Dakota’s online sex-offender registry. Their crimes range from a misdemeanor such as indecent exposure to the worst category of crime on the book, a class AA felony such as continuous sexual abuse of a child.

Polk County lists one level 3, or high-risk, sex offender but he is in jail.

The state of North Dakota also ranks sex offenders by their likelihood to reoffend based on factors such as whether they feel remorse or try to rationalize their behavior, whether they stay away from drugs and alcohol and whether they complete their treatment program.

Two of Deitz’s tenants, for example, are at high risk while one is at low risk. The high-risk offenders must register for the rest of their lives and more details of their crimes are available to the public online. Low-risk offenders and moderate-risk offenders must register for 15 years and 25 years, respectively.

Besides registering with the state, sex offenders must also register with local law enforcement whenever they enter a new community. And much of the work of tracking them is done at the local level.

“My main job is to do the tracking,” said Cpl. Brian Robbins with the Grand Forks Police Department. “(If they’re) living here, working here or going to school here, they would have to register with the police department.”

He said he verifies the addresses of high-risk offenders every three months, and low- and moderate-risk offenders every six months. When a high-risk offender moves into the community, he said, the police department goes door-to-door in about a one-block radius around the offender’s new home and distributes fliers about the move and how the department handles offenders.

“We want to get the education and information out there to put the public at ease as much as possible and to let them know we’re checking in with (offenders) as much possible,” he said.

Treating offenders

Many sex offenders also check in with a probation officer as part of their sentencing. In Grand Forks, Johnson currently works more than 30 offenders, whom he checks on at least once per month. He said he will make either announced or unannounced visits, and offenders will often meet with him at his office.

The probation officer is often part of a sex offender’s treatment in a model known as “community containment.”

It can best be described as a triangle around the offender, with the probation officer, the treatment provider and the polygraph examiner on the corners, according to Johnson.

“The idea is that the law enforcement, the court and the treatment providers provide a boundary for recovering offenders to make sure they stay within community standards and function according to the law,” said Randy Slavens, a clinical social worker who, along with clinical psychiatrist Desiree Jagow, administers the sex offender treatment program in Grand Forks through the state’s Northeast Human Service Center.

The ultimate goal of the program is to change sex offenders’ beliefs and behavior by helping them understand the sexual assault cycle. The cycle describes how an offender’s low self-image can lead him or her to withdraw from society, which leads to feelings of resentment and a desire for control or power that can result in sexual assault. From here, offenders will then feel guilt and try to repress the guilt or rationalize their actions.

In sex offender treatment, Slavens and Jagow try to help the offenders come to terms with their behavior and take responsibility so they can break free from the cycle. One way is to get them see how their actions affect others with help from victims’ advocacy groups.

In Grand Forks, that group is the Community Violence Intervention Center, which, among other things, shelter domestic assault victims.

“Our involvement is intended to provide that victim’s perspective to the clinicians and other people working directly with the sex offender,” said Laura Frisch, CVIC’s director of victim services

During treatment, an offender must take a polygraph test every six months or so to see how he or she is responding to treatment.

Susan Wagner, a coordinator with the state’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse division, said the exams aren’t used as a legal tool, but rather to see if offenders are being honest about their offending history.

Slavens said it’s hard to predict when each offender will begin responding to the treatment program. Offenders often rationalize their behavior for a long time before finally giving in and taking responsibility, he said, which can take up to a few years.

“It’s really unpredictable how the barriers completely come down.” he said.

Stability key

Johnson said the collaboration and communication between all the agencies helps the rehabilitating offenders to stabilize, which he sees as the key to creating a safer community.

“It all boils down to stability,” Johnson said. “Anyone in the community that has a home and a job is a much more stable person, and it’s no different for people with sex offenses on their record. I really believe that having those things in place makes a sex offender in the community a much, much safer person.”

It’s just much harder with sex offenders because of the stigma of their crimes, he said.

Deitz, the landlord, expressed his frustration with the difficulties sex offenders have transitioning to life after prison in comparison with other criminals.

“People think I’m crazy, but I’m not,” he said. “It’d be no different if you did something and got in trouble. People sometimes go off the deep end. ... Nobody’s perfect.”

‘Sexually dangerous’

When some offenders are evaluated before being released from prison, they are deemed “sexually dangerous” and civilly committed to the sex offender treatment program at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown. See tomorrow’s Herald to read about the program from the perspective of both individuals in treatment and program administration. 

Click here to view a map of registered sex offenders in Grand Forks. 

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