There's No Place Like Prison

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

For many, it wouldn't matter whether sex offenders were left in the inner city or shipped out to the corn fields. In recent years, they have become a perennial piñata for state legislators. Every time a horrific sex crime seizes the public's attention, penalties are increased and post-release regulation becomes more stringent.

In response to the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in St. Joseph, legislators mandated the creation of a statewide sex-offender database that law-enforcement officials could draw on to investigate crimes.

In 1994 seven-year-old Megan Kanka was murdered by a convicted sex offender who had moved in across the street from her New Jersey home. Minnesota legislators responded with a law mandating that communities be informed about such felons' whereabouts. That legislation, which resulted in the three-tier risk scale, also ensures that when a level-three offender moves in, a notification meeting is held in the neighborhood. If the person moves to a new address, another meeting is scheduled. Since the law was implemented in 1997, more than 180 such meetings have been held statewide.

Chang Park

Most recently, the 1999 murders of Cally Jo Larson and Katie Poirier led to an increase in the length of time former sex offenders are required to keep law-enforcement officials abreast of their living arrangements. It also requires that they provide information about secondary addresses, such as cabins, and mandates the creation of a public, online database of level-three offenders, which is available at www.doc.state.mn.us/level3/level3.asp.

In 1999 Rep. Joe Mullery, a DFLer from north Minneapolis, introduced a measure that would have put further restrictions on those convicted of a sex crime. But instead of being spurred by a crime, this legislation was born out of the same complaints now being voiced in the Phillips neighborhood: A seemingly disproportionate number of sex offenders were taking up residence in the poor, urban area Mullery represents. Under the proposal, level-three sex offenders would have been prohibited from living within 1,500 feet of a park, school, or another level-three offender. The legislation was later modified to include daycare centers.

"There is no community that a sex offender could live in in the state of Minnesota if the law had passed," argues Will Alexander, community-notification director at the Department of Corrections. Alexander, who has attended almost every community-notification meeting since they began in 1997, also takes issue with the assumption that housing more than one sex offender at a property somehow increases predatory behavior. "There is no credible evidence anyplace that having more than one sex offender in a residence is any more dangerous," he declares.

Eventually Mullery's bill failed to pass. He intends to bring it up again this coming session, however. And this time he hopes to eliminate childcare centers from the equation. "It was when they added the daycare language that there was a problem," he maintains.

No matter how many laws are passed by concerned legislators, no matter how closely sex offenders are monitored after they are released, the fact remains that they have to live somewhere--and at present the choices are almost nonexistent. "Other than Mike, I don't even begin to know where to send them," says Donna Woltering, who works at AMICUS. "I don't have a clue."

 

Mike Davis looks more like an offensive lineman gone to seed than a social worker. A squat brick of a man, he is dressed in a blue velour pullover, baggy navy pants, and blue-tinted sunglasses. A red baseball cap, courtesy of the U.S. Marines, covers his shaved head.

"This is kind of our base of operations," he says. It is a crisp Saturday afternoon in September, and Davis is standing in a garage surrounded by cases of Big House Root Beer. Next to him is a remodeled '72 Volkswagen Bug; "Slammer Sodas" is painted on its side. Davis developed the recipe for the root beer in his kitchen and a year ago began paying a Wisconsin company to bottle the brew. In theory, the venture is designed to bring in revenue for 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life. One day Davis hopes to market a whole shelf full of flavors: Bad Bob's Black Cherry, Criminal Cream Soda, Gangster Grape. But so far the root beer can be found in only a handful of stores, and the brown VW seldom leaves the garage. "I don't like driving it around," Davis concedes. "It draws too much attention to me. I'm a real strong introvert."

Although Davis often speaks of "we" when discussing 9 to 5 Beats Ten to Life, he is essentially a one-man show. Occasionally a stray volunteer will pitch in, but there are no employees, and Davis does not take a salary. For the past decade he's worked closely with ex-offenders in one capacity or another: Davis has managed halfway houses, provided employment counseling to offenders, and given presentations at prisons designed to help inmates successfully make the transition to freedom. He currently works at a supportive housing facility for the chronically homeless--many of whom have criminal records. In part, Davis says, his dedication to working with people who have broken the law is rooted in his own two-year stint with the Marines. "I know what it's like to lose my freedom and it's an awful thing," he says.

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