There's No Place Like Prison

Phillips families were already worried about the parolees next door. Then the headless corpse turned up.

Just three days after the murder, Holder's torso, which was shrouded in garbage bags, was discovered by Leja's father. The elder Leja immediately informed authorities. The victim's Monte Carlo was discovered near Baldwin, Wisconsin. Holder's mother identified the corpse from three tattoos on his torso. A few weeks later an unnamed informant came forward and told Minneapolis police that Darnell Smith had been talking about the crime.

Both Smiths are facing charges of first-degree murder. Leja was booked for the same crime, but a grand jury declined to deliver an indictment. She is now being charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree assault, and second-degree assault. Parker has been charged with aiding an offender. All four are in prison awaiting trial. No pleas have been entered.

 

In 1965 Dennis Linehan pleaded guilty to abducting and strangling a 14-year-old girl from Shoreview, Minnesota. A decade later, just a week before Linehan was slated for a parole hearing, he escaped from prison, fled to Michigan, and sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl. He would eventually serve five years in a Michigan prison for that crime.

In 1994 the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Linehan's indefinite commitment to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. The court ruled that Ramsey County prosecutors had failed to prove that Linehan had "an utter lack of power" to control his sexual impulses, as required by a 1939 law, and ordered his release.

The decision set off a wave of hysteria. No halfway house in the state would accept Linehan. The media transformed him into an icon of sexual deviance. He was ultimately "released" to a one-man residence on the grounds of the Stillwater prison and kept under round-the-clock surveillance by the Department of Corrections (DoC). The arrangement cost approximately $300,000 a year.

Amid the uproar, and during an election year, a special one-day session of the Legislature was called to amend the state's psychopathic-personality-commitment law. Within a year Linehan was back in St. Peter. He remains committed indefinitely.

The Linehan case presents an extreme example of a common problem. After serving their time, the vast majority of people who commit sex crimes are not detained as sexual predators, like Linehan, but are released into the community. And, simply put, nobody wants them.

"You could murder someone and it would be easier to place you than [someone with a] sex-abuse charge," says Marvin Clark, who works with AMICUS, a nonprofit that assists ex-offenders. "That is the most difficult person to place anywhere in this state."

Russ Stricker, who, as head of Hennepin County's Intensive Supervised Release program, is charged with monitoring the state's most serious parolees, estimates that 70 percent of those he supervises are sex offenders. "Our greatest issue is finding appropriate housing, especially for sex offenders," Stricker acknowledges. "Oftentimes we compromise a lot to allow them to live in some pretty undesirable places." The alternative, Stricker says, is returning parolees to the DoC, a practice that the agency understandably prefers to avoid.

A DoC study issued in March reports that while housing for all ex-convicts is increasingly hard to come by, sex offenders have even fewer options. The report goes on to say that a sex offense represents a "modern day 'scarlet letter' of disapproval and fear." It further argues that unless ex-felons--sexual or otherwise--can find permanent shelter, they are likely to revert to a life of crime. "If they don't have a stable place and someplace they can feel secure--then more than likely they're gonna go back to their old ways," Clark confirms.

Since 1997, people accused or convicted of a sex crime--from indecent exposure to armed sexual assault--have been classified based on a three-tier risk scale. Those deemed most likely to commit future crimes are dubbed level-three offenders; and, because of the public disavowal of sex offenders, they end up concentrated in poor neighborhoods such as Phillips. According to a database maintained by the DoC, 34 of the 61 level-three sex offenders living in the state reside in Minneapolis. Of those, 13 make their homes in the Phillips neighborhood--the densest such concentration in Minnesota.

"People are absolutely terrified down here that the neighborhood is being used as a garbage dump for sex offenders and there's nothing they can do about it," observes Phillips resident Paul Weir.

Weir's suspicions are not unfounded. Hennepin County's Stricker says that often inmates released to the custody of authorities in surrounding counties end up living in Minneapolis. "That happens all the time, and we are very frustrated over it," he laments. "They can take up residence here and we have no say as to whether we think it's appropriate."

What's more, Stricker says, Mike Davis's program--9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life--unwittingly exacerbates the inequities. "A number of the outlying counties have gone to him and he has made it possible for them to find a spot here," he argues. "I don't want to come down too hard on Mike, because I think he does mean well, and he has been willing to take in some pretty difficult people, but it has tended to be people from other counties rather than Hennepin people."

Davis says that 9 to 5 helps whoever needs shelter, regardless of geography. "Our policy is, we're gonna rent to anybody who needs helping," he argues. Davis also points out that the primary reason he originally purchased property in Phillips is that he simply could not afford to buy land in a bucolic neighborhood: "Ideally I'd like to put 'em out in Hinckley, Minnesota--somewhere isolated. But it's not practical."

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