Panel debates restrictions on sex offenders’ housing

Posted April 17, 2009, at 9:22 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee debated and largely supported a bill Friday that would prohibit municipalities from adopting residency restrictions on sex offenders.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, who sponsored LD 385, said allowing towns and cities to impose what she said amounts to additional punishment on offenders actually does more harm than good.

“Residency restrictions can be addressed through probation, not legislation,” she said during a public hearing Friday. “What matters, when it comes to recidivism, is social and relational proximity.”

Denise Lord, associate commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, agreed. She testified that residency restrictions actually reduce access to stabilizing resources, such as employment and housing, and also contribute to a loss of community and family support.

Lord further pointed out that Maine already has enacted a “proximity law” that prohibits sex offenders from initiating contact with children in certain public areas.

So far, 18 Maine municipalities have passed additional local ordinances on sex offenders, including Searsport, which voted at a town meeting last month. The city of Westbrook passed an ordinance awhile back that was so restrictive, offenders could literally only live on a few city streets.

Within the last year, a handful of Maine Supreme Judicial Court cases have challenged the constitutionality of these types of restrictions. The court has not rendered a final decision, but if LD 385 passes it may not have to.

Jason Jabar, a Waterville attorney representing the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said local ordinances often put pressure on other municipalities to keep up, or sometimes even compete.

Elizabeth Saxl-Ward, representing the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, called herself a surprising supporter of LD 385, given that she advocates for victims. She explained in her testimony that strict residency guidelines often push offenders underground, which actually makes it more likely for them to offend. Saxl-Ward said better probation, better risk assessment and better education all would go a lot further than adding restrictions.

While most Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee members seemed supportive of the measure, it will face opposition from the Maine Municipal Association.

Kate Dufour with the MMA testified against the bill on the basis that it restricts home rule authority and shifts responsibility to the state, which doesn’t have the resources to meet that responsibility.

Dufour did say that despite MMA’s opposition, the lobbying group was willing to work on a compromise.

Haskell agreed that even if municipalities are barred from adopting residency restrictions, it doesn’t mean the state cannot create a uniform policy.

A work session on LD 385 will be held on May 6, at which point the committee will either move the bill forward to the full Legislature or kill it.

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