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HERALD ARCHIVE EXTRA: Police less likely to hold sex offender notification hearing (January 2009)

A little more than 10 years ago, 400 anxious people packed an elementary school gymnasium in Fargo to grill two police officers about a newcomer to their neighborhood.

A little more than 10 years ago, 400 anxious people packed an elementary school gymnasium in Fargo to grill two police officers about a newcomer to their neighborhood.

Michael Heger, then 40, had moved to Fargo after his release from the North Dakota State Penitentiary, where he had served a little more than half of a 30-year sentence for the rape and killing of a woman in her 80s in Oakes, N.D.

It was the first notification hearing held in North Dakota to alert residents to the presence of a high-risk sex offender. Two months earlier, Minnesota had held its first notification meeting in Eagan, a Twin Cities suburb.

For a time, such gatherings were regular occurrences. Today, not so much.

"It's been more than a year since we've held a public meeting," said Jay Middleton, a community resources officer with the Grand Forks Police Department. "The reason we quit is lack of turnout."

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It's the same in Fargo and other cities.

"Even the media isn't coming" to such meetings anymore, Fargo Police Sgt. Jeff Skuza said recently, explaining why his department will rely instead on news releases, the Internet and e-mail alerts to notify residents about a high-risk offender in their midst. "We decided it was not a good use of our man power."

Grand Forks police are "meeting the public notification requirement by going door to door, giving people information about the offender," Middleton said. They also distribute that information -- names and addresses of offenders moving into the area, lists of charges and convictions, photographs and links to state and local Web sites -- to local news outlets.

"We probably receive more feedback by going door to door," he said. "People will call the next day to ask questions and offer suggestions. Some residents may not be able to attend a meeting, or they may be afraid to speak up at a gathering like that.

"And when we go door to door, we also get to speak to people about other issues they may have. So far, from what I've seen and the feedback we've received, this has been a very effective procedure."

7 at highest risk

Of the 82 convicted sex offenders registered with police in Grand Forks today, 75 have been assessed as low to moderate risks to reoffend, Middleton said. Of the seven high-risk offenders, six live in the city and one resides elsewhere but works in town, which also requires a local registration.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the door-to-door approach makes sense.

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"When we first started enacting these notification laws, we made it clear that local authorities were the ones to make the call on how they do that," he said.

Public meetings may still be held "for the very serious ones," he said. "But if you have too many of them, you wind up with nobody coming. Often, a better way is to go to the people who are immediately affected by going door to door," supplementing that with publication of pictures and reports by news outlets.

"When I set up the state Web site (on registered sex offenders), I made the call to put the high-risk offenders on there and not everybody," Stenehjem said. "If you do all of them, the impact is lessened."

North Dakota and Minnesota have similar procedures established to evaluate convicted sex offenders as they approach their prison release dates and to assess their risk to reoffend.

In East Grand Forks, police register and monitor changes in the residence, employment and vehicle information of offenders ranked as Level 1, the lowest risk to reoffend. The information is not made public, but police regularly meet with them to make sure they stay in compliance. For Level 2 offenders, police provide what information they have to schools.

"If they're Level 3, we do a full official community notification -- go to schools, hold an open meeting," said Andy Boen, one of two East Grand Forks officers assigned to monitor sex offenders registered in the city.

No Level 2 or 3 offenders are registered in the city now, he said.

"Regardless of level, if they fail to register, or jump to another city without notifying us, when they're found it's a felony and adds five years to the time they're required to register," he said.

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Informed public

It has become almost routine, the occasional reminder that people who have committed serious, sometimes horrific sex crimes may live down the street -- or anywhere.

In late December, police in Bemidji announced an address change for a convicted Level 3 sex offender living there, providing his name, age, physical description, old and new addresses and criminal history: "sexual contact with female victims ages

9-18."

"This notification is not intended to increase fear in the community," the police said. "Law enforcement believes that an informed public is a safer public."

Also in December, Johnny Corrales, 27, of Ada, Minn., pleaded guilty in Norman County District Court to a felony charge of failing to register at a new address as a predatory offender. A convicted rapist, he was arrested in Phoenix in October in the company of a 16-year-old runaway from Minnesota, the Arizona Republic reported.

He is to be sentenced in Ada on Wednesday.

Where to live?

Sparked by some ghastly and highly publicized crimes, registration of convicted sex predators was mandated across the country in the mid-1990s. Then came laws and procedures for public notification. More recently, concerned parents and others have pushed hard for laws restricting where registered sex offenders may live, work or simply be.

Jessica's Law, a form of which has been adopted by half the states, prohibits sex offenders from living within a certain distance -- typically, 500 to 2,500 feet -- of a school, park or other place where children may gather. It was sparked by the abduction of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was killed in Florida by a transient sex offender. He was required by state law to register but had failed to keep his address up to date.

Prodded by a Fargo mother who was alarmed to find that North Dakota imposed no such limits, the 2007 North Dakota Legislature considered several restrictive bills. But Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes and others cautioned against such an approach, saying it was impractical and could give a false sense of security. Longer prison terms and tougher parole requirements would do more to protect children, they said.

Most of the 2007 proposals were withdrawn, defeated or rolled into one bill that did pass, not declaring certain areas off-limits but leaving local school officials to determine when and under what conditions offenders could be on school grounds -- to vote, for example, or to attend a parent-teacher conference.

Stenehjem said Friday that he was aware of one bill draft circulating this session that would bar sex offenders from a zone, probably 1,000 feet, around a school. He said he planned to find the sponsor and share his reservations.

Like North Dakota, Minnesota does not limit by statute where registered sex offenders may live, though some cities have adopted restrictive ordinances.

"I thought about recommending something like that here because it has some intuitive appeal," Stenehjem said, but research on the effects of such laws in other states caused him to reconsider.

"Compliance drops in those areas," he said. "Instead of registering so law enforcement and probation officers could check on them, they go underground and nobody knows where they are.

"I think we have the highest rate of compliance in the country, and police do a pretty good job of making unannounced visits to see they're where they're supposed to be. If you don't know the address, you can't check on them."

Authorities prefer that registered offenders find employment as well as an address, Stenehjem said. "They are much less likely then" to reoffend.

'Internal exile'

A 2007 report by the Social Science Research Network found restrictive residency laws to be "a form of banishment (or) internal exile" that may cause more harm than good, and a July 2008 report by the National Institute of Justice raised similar questions.

"If unable to find legal housing, offenders may report false addresses, become homeless or go underground," the NIJ report states. "Others may be forced to live in rural areas with less access to employment or mental health services."

Human Rights Watch has called for repeal of residency laws, arguing that besides being of doubtful value in protecting children, they violate the rights of people who pose little risk. At least four homicides had been attributed to "vigilantes" who killed men who were on sex offender registries, according to the rights group.

Restrictions that close off much of a city sometimes have the unhappy effect of "clustering" sex offenders in one place. In Louisville, Ky., some residents and neighbors of a 72-unit apartment complex were startled recently to learn that 40 of their fellow residents were registered sex offenders, the local Fox TV station reported.

In May 2006, 12 registered sex offenders were living in a Vallejo, Calif., hotel, one of the few addresses open to them, until the hotel owner kicked them out. Parole agents moved them into a large trailer at one of the few Bay Area addresses left to them -- on the grounds of San Quentin State Prison. Still, there were protests from people living nearby.

In Miami last year, as many as 30 offenders claimed a grimy, rat-infested tent encampment beneath a highway bridge as their official residence. Probation officers ordered some of the men to live there and checked on them daily. Some had it listed as their address on their driver's licenses.

The encampment eventually was closed after criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union. Such laws simply "drive people underground," the Florida ACLU president told the Reuters news agency. "They do not achieve the goal of making the world safer for our children."

Objections also have been raised to the growing practice of posting offenders' places of employment on notification sites. The practice may alert citizens to the nearby presence of an offender, but it may also make potential employers skittish and less likely to take a chance on someone trying to get his life back on track.

"If it leads to offenders losing their jobs, that's destabilizing," a spokesman for the Texas ACLU told the Dallas Morning News last March. "Being less connected, not having gainful employment, not having a roof over your head -- these are things that put people in a more vulnerable position" and work against rehabilitation.

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