Bill seeks to classify all sex offenders — Many not assessed for level of risk

BY FREDERICK MELO
Pioneer Press
Jan. 19, 2006

A proposed law would require all registered sex offenders to be assigned
a risk level – even if they never went to prison.

The legislation would close a “king-sized” loophole in the state’s
sex-offender notification law, said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Joseph
Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. Convicted offenders are supposed to be
classified by a corrections committee shortly before their release from
state prison, but a large majority are never classified for a simple
reason: Offered probation, they never set foot behind bars.

More than 3,790 of the state’s registered sex offenders have been
assigned a Level 1, 2, or 3 risk factor, giving police an indication of
their likelihood of committing new offenses. But their numbers are
dwarfed by the 10,000 registered offenders who have never been
classified, Atkins said.

The classifications are essential to helping police gauge how closely to
monitor offenders who move into an area, he said.

Police generally hold community meetings to alert the public about Level
3 offenders, those deemed most likely to offend again.

Depending on staff, some departments also choose to check up regularly on
Level 2, or moderate-risk, offenders. The whereabouts of Level 1
offenders generally are released only to victims and witnesses.

Under Atkins’ proposal, sex offenders serving probation would be subject
to the same community notification laws as those released from prison. In
the case of Level 3 offenders, the public would have access to a Web site
detailing their crimes and block addresses.

“It’s going to allow departments to look at these offenders and say, this
guy is more of a priority than this other guy,” said West St. Paul Mayor
John Zanmiller, who also is a probation officer in Hennepin County. “This
is the guy we need to stop in and visit every three months.”

Otherwise, police say they have few tools to track the large majority of
offenders who are never classified.

“Until I started looking at this, I just assumed that if a dangerous
offender moved into my neighborhood, I’d be notified,” said Atkins, who
will present the bill today at a news conference.

Four student journalists from Stillwater High School are expected to
attend the announcement, as well as police chiefs from Inver Grove
Heights and South St. Paul. The Stillwater High newspaper recently broke
the news that a convicted sex offender had been posing as a visiting
“duke.”

The man, 22-year-old Joshua Adam Gardner of Austin, Minn., was placed on
probation in 2003 after being convicted of coercing his 14-year-old
girlfriend into sex. Gardner is being held at the Winona County jail on
charges of failing to follow probation restrictions.

“This is the perfect example of the kind of guy we need an assessment
done on, and then notify the public if he presents a risk,” Atkins said.

Atkins’ bill would require a review committee of county or state
corrections officials to assess an offender’s risk level 90 days before
the end of probation. But some question where the funding and staff hours
for more assessments would come from.

Atkins said he did not have a budget estimate for his proposal.

“It would be more money,” said Craig Vos, program manager for Hennepin
County Community Corrections. Another complication is that prison review
committees take into account the offender’s behavior and willingness to
respond to treatment before assigning a risk level.

“The mechanisms that now produce the classifications depend to some
extent on the experience that the offender has in prison, and we wouldn’t
have that at the probationary level,” Vos said.

Brian McClung, spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the governor
supports the proposal.

© 2006 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources.

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