ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — As a community corrections agent who supervises sex offenders living in Rochester, Alex Bunger’s job involves making surprise visits on people who likely aren’t too thrilled to see him.
Bunger has license to be an exceptionally nosy houseguest as he looks for signs that an offender is heading down the wrong path.
Maybe there’s alcohol or an Internet connection the person isn’t supposed to have. Maybe a man with a history of abusing kids has started dating a woman who has young children. People with offenses against minors might also be spending time in places they’re not supposed to go, Bunger could find.
“Our guys can’t go to the mall and hang out,” said Bunger, who also keeps watch on sex offenders in Dodge County and elsewhere in Olmsted County.
A $138,000 grant that helps fund agents like Bunger who supervise sex offenders is in peril as lawmakers search for ways to plug a projected $5 billion state deficit. The cut could lead to reduced supervision of other types of offenders because it’s so critical to maintain current levels of sex offender supervision, according to Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted Community Corrections officials.
The grant, which pays for two of the four agents who supervise the day-to-day activities of the about 200 sex offenders living in the three-county area, has been eliminated in budget proposals from both Republicans and Gov. Mark Dayton, local community corrections officials say.
The result of the possible cut would be reduced supervision for certain categories of high-risk offenders — potentially drug offenders, domestic violence offenders, or high-risk juveniles — as resources are shifted to protect sex offender supervision, according to DFO Community Corrections director Doug Lambert.
The potential change is still “very concerning,” said Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem, because the funding reduction could force community corrections officials to raise the bar for determining which offenders get more time-intensive supervision.
“We’re talking about now impacting public safety, because these are people out there maybe committing new offenses,” Ostrem said.
In practice, less intensive supervision means some offenders on probation and supervised release could get fewer surprise visits like those Bunger makes on sex offenders. The visits can dig up more valuable clues about a possible return to criminal activity than office visits where offenders can easily give a false impression that everything’s OK, said community services supervisor Holly Busby.
“You can’t expect to keep the community safe if you sit in our office and talk with someone for 15 minutes a day,” she said.
The DFO Enhanced Sex Offender Grant was secured by former state Rep. Dave Bishop of Rochester in 1999 to fund a pilot project to reduce the caseloads of agents supervising sex offenders to 35. It was intended at the time as a one-time appropriation of $150,000 a year, with outcomes due to be reported in 2002.
Local corrections officials acknowledge the grant wasn’t given to any other counties in the state, but they say the local program provides needed supervision and can save the state money in some cases by providing a path for rehabilitation in the community rather than sending certain offenders to prison.
The funding provides more flexibility in sentencing sex offenders, in some cases allowing them to go through treatment rather than going to prison where they could receive no treatment and eventually cause bigger problems when they return to the community, Ostrem said.
The grant was almost cut during the legislative session two years ago, Lambert said, but was saved at the last minute. Bishop said he plans to advocate at the Capitol for the funding to be saved, adding that he thinks the program should be extended to other areas of the state.
“It’s an important program, and $138,000 is really not much when you really think about the cost to the community and public safety,” Ostrem said. “It just seems like it’s a knee-jerk reaction to pull it.”
The supervision the grant helps pay for is critical, said Rochester police Lt. Al Kuehl, because it helps keep offenders accountable immediately after they get out of jail or prison, a crucial time in their release to the community.
“It’s a level of supervision that I think prevents many offenders from slipping back into their old ways,” Kuehl said. “Whoever would think of cutting this should give it a long, second look before doing that.”
By MATT RUSSELL
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