ST. PAUL — A Minne-
sota Supreme Court ruling issued last week blocks
sex offenders from being kept in or sent back to prison because they cannot find housing.
The case was brought on behalf of a man who could not find a place to live in Mankato after the city placed restrictions on sex offender residency.
The complicated opinion from the Supreme Court came too late to benefit its petitioner, Antwone Ford, who was living in Mankato when he was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in 2008.
But Assistant State Public Defender Amy Lawler, who represented Ford in his appeal, said the opinion sets a precedent that will stop other people from being kept wrongfully incarcerated.
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said his agency is making plans to comply with the Supreme Court’s directive.
“We will need to take a far more active role in terms of helping secure housing,” he said.
Ford was released from prison in 2014 and lived in Mankato before he was sent back to prison on a parole violation. He became eligible for re-release in early 2015.
In the meantime the city of Mankato adopted an ordinance prohibiting predatory offenders from living near schools, parks or other youth facilities and prohibiting multiple halfway houses from being near each other.
Ford could not find a place to live in Blue Earth County, so he was sent back to prison for 90 days, according to court documents.
Ford found a residence in Ramsey County as his term neared its end, but the Department of Corrections would not approve his proposal and he was kept in prison.
Ford was finally released to a sex offender treatment house in Hennepin County in February 2017.
The appeal of Ford’s re-incarceration still proceeded. The Department of Corrections argued the issue was now moot, but Lawler counter-argued Ford was not guaranteed long-term placement at the treatment house and could still be re-incarcerated.
The Supreme Court issued an order in May that Lawler said in effect prevented Ford from being sent back to prison.
Ford’s intensive conditional release period expired in July. He is now on standard probation and still residing at the treatment house, his attorney said.
The Supreme Court issued an opinion on Wednesday that outlined the legal reasons for its May decision.
The justices agreed with a district court opinion that the Department of Corrections did not fulfill its duty, set by a prior Court of Appeals ruling, to find Ford a residence so he could be released.
Corrections staff did make attempts to find housing for Ford, the case records indicate. But attempts in Mankato were stymied by the city’s residency restrictions. And attempts to locate Ford elsewhere failed because county probation departments did not want to supervise him.
The state’s most populated counties, including Blue Earth County, receive state funding to supervise state parolees. The duty typically falls to the county in which an offender was convicted, unless another county agrees to accept the parolee.
The Supreme Court opinion mandated the Department of Corrections to itself supervise parolees when it cannot find a county partner.
Schnell and Blue Earth County Community Corrections Director Josh Millow, who has been following the case, said counties and the state already have been working to improve collaboration in anticipation of the order.
Schnell said the mandate will require his department to devote more resources, but he is confident it can be accomplished.
Millow noted a residency requirement is a condition of release for only a small proportion of offenders on intensive supervised release or intensive conditional release from prison. Most offenders on standard probation are not denied release or sent back to jail due to homelessness.
The county corrections department provides resources for its charges who are struggling to find housing, Millow said, but the county is not mandated to find housing for them.
Residency restrictions debate
While the Supreme Court did not weigh in, both Lawler and Schnell are not supporters of city sex offender residency restrictions. Many communities across the state have adopted restrictions in recent years.
Lawler said her first appeal challenged Mankato’s restrictions, arguing they violated Ford’s due process rights. But a district court judge ruled that a defense attorney did not have the authority to challenge a city ordinance.
“It would be good for people to understand that residency restrictions don’t make people safer,” Lawler said. “No one is safer when these people are homeless and transient.”
Schnell said city restrictions can make it more challenging for his release officers to achieve their mission of supporting offenders so they do not re-offend.
“The reality is: the more connected these folks are, the less likely they are to re-offend,” Schnell said. “Having secure housing for these offenders is critically important to public safety.”
Millow did not want to share a public opinion on community regulation, but said he agreed that stable housing is a key factor in recidivism.
City Manager Pat Hentges said he has not heard any recent local concern about Mankato’s ordinance or any calls to change it. Mankato’s ordinance is very similar to many others across the state, he said.
In one of the first legal challenges against community restrictions, a Hennepin County District Court judge struck down an ordinance in the city of Dayton last year. That ordinance effectively banned all sex offenders from the small city.