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Rochester, Minn. — Interpreting Megan's Law poses a major question for civil libertarians and law enforcement officials: what is the appropriate balance between the rights of sex offenders and the safety of a community?
A recent case in Winona illustrates both sides of the question.
In November, a month after being released from prison, a 23-year-old Winona man was back in jail. He had just finished doing time for criminal sexual conduct with a minor. He is now facing similar charges for another incident with a minor.
From one perspective this shows the effectiveness of offender registration. Police found him easily because his address was registered. On the other hand he had re-offended.
Critics of the law say Megan's Law can provide intense public scrutiny for sex offenders. That scrutiny can sometimes interfere with their re-entry into society.
"We probably have more due process rights built into our statute than any other notification statute in the country," says Stephen Huot of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Huot says Minnesota's sex offender notification and treatment programs fair well compared to other states.
"We do individualized risk assessments," he explains. "A lot of states don't. They just put everybody on the web site, which sort of implies they're all the same. They're all dangerous to you whether they were a sex offender with multiple child molestations or a kid who when he was 19 had sex with a 15-year-old who was in love with him."
Under federal law child molesters and rapists released from prison have to tell police where they live and provide updated photographs of themselves. Failure to register is a felony. In most states authorities post the information on the Internet.
In Minnesota a committee of attorneys, counselors, officers and the offender, himself, participate in what's called an individualized risk assessment and decide what level of risk the offender is to the community. A most dangerous -- or level three -- sex offender must register his picture and personal information online.
Anyone who has access to the world wide web has access to the information. Local law enforcement officials must also hold a community notification meeting in the neighborhood where the sex offender is going to live. Statewide recidivism rates appear to be dropping since community notification began.
But Huot says many factors play into that, like whether or not the offender's completed treatment and counseling or whether or not the offender has restrictions and supervision after he is released.
Huot says the program has been an effective education tool. He says about 70,000 people in Minnesota have attended community notification meetings since 1997. He says people are learning about the profile of a typical sex offender. For example he says most people don't know that eighty percent of all sex crimes are committed by a relative or someone the victim knows.
Huot has conducted several community notification meetings.
"One of the concerns the public always has is it might be ok to put him in some neighborhoods but not my neighborhood," Huot says. "Because there are kids or parks or too urban or or too rural or too suburban. I have yet for someone stand up and say this is a good place for a sex offender."
And that, says Rochester based public defender Bill Wright, is what makes the law so tough for sex offenders.
"How would you like your personal information published not only statewide but nationally and internationally on the Internet?" Wright says. "I think it's an infringement on anybody's civil rts to do that to that extent. On the other hand I understand why they think it's necessary."
Wright says he thinks legislators over react to one big case and have created a law that doesn't really resolve the larger problem of sex offender rehabilitation.
Patty Rime, a probation officer who works with sex offenders in southeastern Minnesota, says the notification law has aided law enforcement in some ways but it's backfired in others.
"The problem comes when you have a level 3 come out and they don't have housing," Rime says. "And we try to help them find housing, which is something that can reduce their risk to re-offend. We don't want them walking around homeless. And we go to a landlord and as soon as the landlord finds out this area is going to be on news. Everybody is going to know you're letting a sex offender live here. They're going to say, 'I'm not going to do this. I'm not going to let this sex offender live here.'" Rime says many of her clients end up staying in hotels or with family.
Rime and other Minnesota law enforcement officials say they have not seen any blatant cases of retaliation against offenders but they have seen other more subtle forms of shaming.
"Often times when somebody is shamed from the community and they're an outcast," Rime says. "They don't have housing, and they don't have employment or resources, they're going to be in a more stressful situation a more frustrated situation feeling more angry or worse about who they are, and I think that can raise their risk to re-offend."
The U-S Supreme Court is considering two Megan's Law cases. One is a challenge to the Connecticut law which posts information about all sex offenders, no matter the degree of their offense. The other challenge is in Alaska where offenders who completed their sentences before the law went into effect are also required to register.
The cases were argued before the court on Nov. 13. A decision is expected in the new year.