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Tracking sex offenders: More may concentrate in cities with available housing

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JAMESTOWN, N.D.—In the Police Department here, each patrol officer is assigned three registered sex offenders to check on every month to make sure the offenders are living and working where they say they are.

It's an unusually rigorous arrangement compared to other cities, such as Fargo, where sex offenders are checked on every three months or so.

"It is very time consuming with that large a number and such a small community," said Police Capt. John Gletne, who oversees the registration of offenders in Jamestown.

According to the state sex offender registry, more registered high-risk sex offenders are living in the Jamestown area per capita than in any other larger community in the state; there are also more offenders of all levels per capita here as well.

Gletne said it's probably because the city is home to a state medium-security prison, the State Hospital, which treats sex offenders, and four transition homes for when those offenders are released.

Registered high-risk sex offenders, deemed by authorities as a high risk to re-offend and whose address changes police must announce publicly, are an unevenly distributed population. Though numbers can change daily as offenders move around, a search of the registry in June yielded a total of 232 high-risk offenders statewide, but 60 percent live in ZIP codes in the Bismarck-Mandan area, Fargo-West Fargo and Jamestown areas. These ZIP codes have 37 percent of the state's estimated high-risk offender population.

Where offenders live

The Jamestown ZIP code had 35 high-risk offenders, which is 20 offenders per 10,000 residents. Put another way, one out of every 500 Jamestown residents is a high-risk offender.

Bismarck-Mandan ZIP codes had 66, or six per 10,000, and Fargo-West Fargo ZIP codes had 38, or three per 10,000. Bismarck is home to two state prisons.

Police Sgt. Junell Krabbenhoft, who oversees sex offender registration in Fargo, said the city has one detective registering sex offenders full time and assigning officers to check on each. She said there are 240 sex offenders of all risk levels living in the city and 83 more who work in the city.

All these figures do not include those in state custody, such as prisoners or those confined to the State Hospital.

They also don't include sex offenders who haven't had their risk levels assessed by the state of North Dakota. Other states and American Indian reservations assess risk levels their own way so apple-to-apple comparisons are difficult. Reservations in North Dakota reported 69 Tier 3 sex offenders, the highest-risk category.

In Moorhead's ZIP code, seven high-risk sex offenders are registered with the state of Minnesota. The state doesn't assign a risk level to every sex offender for a variety of reasons, including those who commit their crimes as juveniles or were released from prison before 1997.

That may be why, in Minnesota, communities the size of Fargo-Moorhead have much smaller numbers of high-risk sex offenders. There are seven in St. Cloud ZIP codes and 10 each in Duluth and Rochester ZIP codes, or one in 10,000 residents in all three areas.

In South Dakota, no risk levels are assigned to sex offenders. The state assigns offenders to one of three tiers, the highest one being those who must register for life. The lifetime registration is the default and being able to get off the registry is based mostly on the offender being 21 or younger when the crime happened and the victim being 13 or older.

Sioux Falls police said there are 522 Tier 3 sex offenders—the highest tier—in Minnehaha County; city-level data tied to tiers was not available. That works out to 28 per 10,000 residents, or one out of every 355. The city hosts a state prison, which includes transitional housing.

Police Det. Ron Harris, who oversees the sex offender registry for his department, said it's logical that more offenders would settle in the area after leaving transitional housing, which requires they have jobs, enough cash in the bank to survive in the outside world and housing before they're released. He said he doesn't have data that proves that, though.

Sex offender registries kept by law enforcement have been more or less open to the public since around 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed Megan's Law requiring sex offenders and their whereabouts be disclosed to the public. It's named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was kidnapped, raped and killed by her neighbor, Jesse Timmendequas, in 1994. Her parents were unaware he was a sex offender.

In more recent years, registries have gotten more attention with the 2003 kidnap and murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin by another sex offender, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. That prompted the creation of a national registry named after her.

Keeping tabs

Gletne said because housing for sex offenders is so hard to come by—few communities want them and public notification means even friends and families may refuse them—Jamestown has become a destination for many offenders coming from other parts of the state.

When registering offenders for the first time, police often ask why they happen to be in Jamestown, he said, and often the answer is because the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has placed them with the transition homes. "Because of housing needs and for treatment and for supervision, we end up with quite a few people who are really not from our community."

He said there has been little opposition to the construction of transition homes here, which he attributes to hospital and prison employees in the community just being used to dealing with former felons.

Gletne said keeping close tabs on sex offenders the way Jamestown police officers do has been effective. "I think the program has kept things under control. It develops that relationship. We're checking on them every month, visiting with them. They know we're thinking about them. They know we're out there. I do think that has to have some impact."

It's rare, he said, that a registered sex offender commits another sex crime in the community—he could only think of two since he started with the department more than 40 years ago— though other minor crimes, such as thefts, aren't unknown.

One of those re-offenders was Walter J. Grant Jr., who pleaded guilty to gross sexual imposition in November 2017, after sexually assaulting a neighbor. The state registry said he sexually assaulted a woman in 1989 and in 2005.

Gletne said at the time that he was surprised because Grant had a job and home.

Fargo police have found their registry program to be effective as well.

Krabbenhoft said she hasn't seen any direct correlation between a higher rate of sex crimes and where sex offenders live. "They're required by law to register, and as long as they're in compliance with their registration, I haven't seen any direct correlation."

Experts have said recidivism rates for sex offenders are relatively low. The Minnesota Department of Corrections found in a 2007 study that only 6 percent of offenders were convicted of another sex crime within three years of being released and 3 percent were again in prison for such a crime.

Among North Dakota felons released from state prisons, about 14 percent commit another crime within three years, according to state data on those released in 2013, the latest publicly available.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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