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A probation program that works
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Jennifer Bruessel and Alex Bunger are sex offender probation officers. They work a region that includes Dodge, Fillmore and Olmsted counties. The pair spend a lot of time out of the office checking on offenders in the community. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
Sex crimes are in the headlines, largely due to the abduction and death of college student Dru Sjodin. The case has revealed some troubling disparities in how sex offenders are handled around the state. And while there are calls for reform, there are some success stories. In southeastern Minnesota, Dodge, Fillmore and Olmsted counties have banded together to create a probation program that monitors sex offenders. The results are impressive.

Rochester, Minn. — Just after dusk on a weeknight, probation officers Jennifer Bruessel and Alex Bunger climb out of their unmarked car, and start down a narrow Rochester walkway.

Bruessel and Bunger are sex offender probation officers working a region that spans Dodge, Fillmore, and Olmsted counties.

Tonight they're out making random spot checks on sex offenders who are part of their caseloads. They want to check on the men's activities, and make sure they aren't doing anything to violate the terms of their probation. The men can't use drugs or alcohol, or possess pornography.

One of the first stops is to see a sex offender we'll call Steve. He's among the roughly 35 men on Alex Bunger's caseload. Steve comes to the door in a yellow polo shirt. He answers questions and makes small talk as his television blares in the background.

Steve was convicted of molesting his son. He went to prison. Now he's on probation.

Jennifer Bruessel inspects his refrigerator, and moments later Alex Bunger checks out Steve's computer. While they do that, Steve reflects on his crime.

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Image Patty Rime

"The reminder of what I've done and what I've lost is enough. I am never going back," says Steve.

"And you know what you need to do keep yourself out, don't you?" asks Bruessel.

"Keep porn off my computer," Steve replies.

Bruessel and Bunger work an unpredictable mix of days and nights. They strive hard to balance mountains of paperwork and court appearances, with time spent on the road visiting the men that make up their caseloads.

Back in 2000 the state Legislature approved money to start a pilot program. The goal was to make sure probation officers were working with only a handful of sex offenders at any given time.

The theory is small caseloads allow probation officers to get out of the office and into the community, for more hands-on work. That leads the way for more intensive probation, and gives officers time to actually monitor offenders.

The results of the pilot program were hailed as a major success, and other areas around the state began to adopt some of the same techniques.

The money for the pilot program ended three years ago. But since then, Dodge, Fillmore and Olmsted counties managed to secure different state dollars to keep most of the pieces intact.

Patty Rime runs the sex offender probation program for the three counties. For a decade she was a probation officer supervising sex offenders.

At one time I was up to supervising 80 offenders. Now trying to keep track of 80 offenders in the community for one person -- you're not going to be able to know what's going on in their lives.
- Patty Rime, sex offender probation supervisor

"I've been where I had a high caseload as an agent. At one time I was up to supervising 80 offenders. Now trying to keep track of 80 offenders in the community for one person -- you're not going to be able to know what's going on in their lives," says Rime.

A statewide survey conducted in 1999 indicates probation officer caseloads range from about 40 sex offenders to close to 200.

The pilot program gave Rime's division $150,000. She says that money helped to bring caseloads down to about 35. For high-risk offenders the ratio is even lower. Each probation officer works with only 15 offenders.

Rime says the results are pretty clear. Nationally, 13 percent of sex offenders are known to reoffend. But in the southeastern counties that Rime manages, its more like 3 percent.

In part, that's because Rime's officers catch offenders in smaller violations -- if they're using pornography or drugs. She says if those things went unchecked, they could lead to new sex crimes.

"Being here for over 12 years and seeing the change -- from having two probation officers working with sex offenders to now eight -- what I've been able to see is yes, our violations went up when we had less offenders on each caseload. That's because what happened was agents were able to get out there and catch offenders in more violations," Rime explains.

Rime says that's a sign the program is working.

"Even though some people would look and say, 'Your violations have gone up. You're not doing as good,' we look at it as a success because we're catching these people," says Rime. "We find out who's working their treatment program, who's really serious about changing, because they are the ones that we go to their homes and they're doing what they need to do."

Rime's program includes more than 200 sex offenders in all. They range from violent rapists to peeping toms.

Some have served prison time. But in this part of the state, most are sentenced to supervised probation. That means there's a lot riding on Rime's team of officers.

The state's tight budget hasn't helped matters. As of July, state funding to community corrections was cut. That forced the sex offender division to make cuts as well, and some things had to go. For instance, offenders right out of prison no longer get help with their first few months of rent. Housing plays a big role in how sex offenders re-adjust to life in the community.

Rime says more funding cuts will really jeopardize her program.

"If we start to lose any other money it's going to start chipping away at agents. And we're going to see our caseload numbers go back up -- which I am really fearful of," says Rime. "People need to talk to their legislators and say keep funding probation supervision, because lower caseloads are the key for us to be out in the community, to keep an eye on these offenders."

Probation officers Jennifer Bruessel and Alex Bunger say some of their most important work happens when they check on offenders out in the community.

As they continue their night out, they stop at an aging apartment complex to check on Phillip.

"Have you been smoking dope today? Why does it smell like marijuana?" asks Bruessel.

"Does not - does not," Phillip replies.

"Was anybody else in here?" Bunger asks.

Phillip continues his denials, but Bruessel and Bunger remain unconvinced. They decide to radio for a K-9 dog and police officer to search the apartment.

When the K-9 team arrives, the apartment is cleared and the search begins. The police officer and dog emerge into the hallway a short time later to deliver the news.

"He showed an indication on the jacket," says the officer. I didn't search the jacket, but he's showing an indication. ... My best bet is that there isn't anything in there, but the coat does smell like marijuana."

Bruessel and Bunger decide to take Phillip to the Olmsted County jail for a urine test. Ultimately, he passes, but both probation officers note they'll be watching Phillip more closely in the coming months.

If Phillip were living anywhere else in the state, visits like this from probation officer probably wouldn't happen. He's been on probation for a while, and had appeared be complying with the terms of his release. The officers say they're concerned largely because Philip was high on marijuana when he attacked a woman several years ago. They believe if he's using drugs again, he's at a higher risk to commit another offense.

They say that's why intensive probation and random spot checks are the best tools they have to prevent future crimes.

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