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Pippi Mayfield, Forum Communications Co., Published August 02 2010

Ex-cons rent Detroit Lakes house from state

DETROIT LAKES – When sex offender Robert Baca was released from prison and set up house in Detroit Lakes, it was widely known that his residence would be in the 300 block of Summit Avenue.

What some may not realize, though, is that for the past six years, the Department of Corrections has been renting the house to provide a place to live to those leaving prison with nowhere else to go.

And there is no law saying the neighborhood has to be made aware of the type of housing for which it is used.

“The Minnesota Department of Corrections has contracted for offender housing at one location in Detroit Lakes since May 1, 2004. The current contract expires on April 30, 2011,” DOC Communications Director Shari Burt said. “On average, one or two offenders live in the residence at any given time. Currently, one offender resides there.”

Burt continued that according to Minnesota Laws 2005, Chapter 136, Article 1, section 13, the state provides an annual appropriation to the DOC to provide housing options to “offenders that maximize community surveillance and supervision.”

At a public meeting earlier this month, Detroit Lakes City Council members discussed the house and the concerns of at least one neighbor.

“Ninety percent of fear is lack of knowledge,” Alderman Ron Zeman said.

The program is called Intensive Supervised Release, and Sherry Hill, program supervisor for the northern region, said the Department of Corrections has received calls about the house – which is rented from Frazee business owner Terry Harrison – and its residents.

Most, if not all, of the calls have been from one woman in the neighborhood that says she doesn’t feel safe anymore since finding out who is living there.

“We’ve had 15 involvements with this address in three years,” Detroit Lakes Police Chief Kel Keena said.

Six were from the DOC, three were for criminal encounters – second-degree assault, domestic and property damage – and six were minor items, including drinking at the house (which is prohibited for those living in the house), a GPS fell off, and complaints about the looks of a scarecrow on the porch and that someone in the house was staring at them.

“I understand no one wants anything but a perfect neighborhood,” Keena said, but from a public safety matter, it’s better to know where the released criminals are living.

That is one of the main reasons the DOC is in favor of such residences, which can house anyone who has served time, from sex offenses to burglary to assault.

The houses don’t need to be licensed in any way – it’s just a basic rental home.

And unless the person being released to the house is a Level 3 sex offender like Baca, the public isn’t made aware of those living in the house.

The DOC doesn’t notify the neighborhood if your child is being released to your house after being in prison, explained Shelva Swanson, Detroit Lakes district supervisor. And it’s not fair to do that for these people, either.

When looking for these houses, the DOC rents ones that are usually in the county seat (so they are close to the courthouse and other services) and close to downtown and resources they will be using. Many don’t have transportation, so the residents need to be able to walk to the grocery store, courthouse, etc.

There are 16 of these houses rented throughout Minnesota.

From law enforcement and the safety perspective, if the person out of prison was wandering, there would – and should – be much more concern.

This way the people living in the house are checked on a regular basis and monitored constantly. Without an address, the police have nowhere and no way to find them.

Those living in the Summit Avenue house are expected to job search regularly and can generally stay for up to 90 days.

Burt said an offender can better find and maintain employment when he or she is in stable housing. They are also more likely to attend and accomplish treatment with stable housing and are more likely to successfully complete supervised release in stable housing.

“This reduces the possibility of additional victims, as well as costs associated with returning offenders to prison,” she said.

Hill said she and the DOC appreciate the neighbors watching and reporting activity there.

Swanson said Baca is the perfect example of why these houses work and are important.

The first time he was released from prison, he had served all his time and was not required to be on home monitoring. He left on a bus and was gone for several months before he was located in California.

The second time he was released and moved into the Summit Avenue house, he had to be monitored by GPS, and when he took the bracelet off and left town, he was in custody within three hours of fleeing.

Some of the rules under the Intensive Supervision Release program include electronic or GPS monitoring, random drug and alcohol testing, unannounced visits by supervising agents, mandatory 40 hours per week work/education, payment of supervision fees and restitution to victims.

There can also be specialized conditions, depending on the person being released.

Mayfield is a reporter at the Detroit Lakes (Minn.) Tribune