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Matt Sepic, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published November 07 2013

Cambridge on edge over Minnesota sex offender transfer plans

CAMBRIDGE, Minn. – Officials with the Minnesota Sex Offender Program say they are moving forward with plans to move a half-dozen civilly committed offenders from a treatment facility in St. Peter to a less restrictive campus in Cambridge.

The move will likely be in the late spring or early summer of next year – before another six are moved to Cambridge from another facility in Moose Lake.

Walk down the thriving Main Street in Cambridge and it’s not hard to figure out how people feel about the state’s plans.

At Herman’s Bakery Coffee Shop & Deli, a big pink poster board sign is taped to a table by the front window. It urges people to sign a petition aimed at stopping the Department of Human Services in its tracks.

At a hair salon across the street, owner Sarah Sjodin spoke for many in Cambridge when she said, “Not in my backyard.”

Sjodin – who is no relation to rape and murder victim Dru Sjodin – points out that the state facility is just across the road from a residential neighborhood.

“We’re a small community of 10,000 people, and it scares me because there are a lot of young families with a lot of young kids around here,” she said. “There are a lot of single-family homes and children in that vicinity.”

Cambridge is the best option for offenders who have completed their prison sentences and have made progress in treatment, state officials said.

Minnesota’s mental health system has long had a presence in this town an hour north of the Twin Cities, first with a state hospital built in the 1920s. That’s since been replaced with a modern residential center. The facility already houses eight people who have developmental disabilities. The Department of Human Services plans to move them to community-based programs.

The plan to relocate the sex offenders to Cambridge comes in the midst of a class-action suit filed by many of the nearly 700 people being detained under the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Plaintiff’s attorney Dan Gustafson says MSOP is unconstitutional because the offenders have served their time, but have little chance of freedom.

“It’s easy to protect somebody who’s not a dangerous criminal. But these people still need to have their constitutional rights defended. Of all the people who need it, they need it the most because they are not people who generate any sort of political support,” he said.

So far just one MSOP “client” – as the state calls them – has been released successfully.

Part of the state’s answer to the lawsuit is a less restrictive setting that’s more like a dormitory than a penitentiary. The men who’ll move here have intellectual and physical disabilities. They’ll share a townhouse that has individual bedrooms, along with a shared kitchen and TV room. And unlike Moose Lake and St. Peter, there’s no barbed wire around the property. But the similarities to college life end there.

Inside one of the townhouses Dr. Liz Barbo – who oversees reintegration at MSOP – said the residents will be under tight supervision.

“As you walk around, you’ll see there’s a door on either hallway. Those doors are secured, so staff will be able to go back and forth between those areas, but not clients,” Barbo said. The building will be staffed around the clock, seven days a week. Cameras are being installed, and residents will wear GPS ankle bracelets. Any trips to town will require an escort.

All of those restrictions are little consolation to Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer, who said the state Department of Human Services never told her about its plans – she found out in September when a reporter called. Palmer said she fears the presence of sex offenders will mean more work for the police department: The DHS facility may be out on the edge of town next to the water tower, but Palmer says it’s still part of Cambridge.

“DHS cannot be an island. And this project cannot be an island in the middle of our community,” she said.

MSOP officials have promised to do a better job of communicating with residents and addressing their concerns about safety. But that’s not their only concern.

The local economy could take a hit, too, Palmer said. A housing developer has delayed plans for a $4.2 million project as a direct result of the state’s plans to move civilly committed sex offenders to town, and she fears the project could be scuttled entirely.