Sex offender bills win committee’s OK

Posted May 15, 2009, at 11:09 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislation that would restrict a community’s ability to control where sex offenders live in town is headed to the full Legislature after a last-minute compromise received a favorable vote in committee on Friday.

A second bill that would allow some sex offenders to petition to be left off the statewide registry also won the endorsement of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

As originally introduced, LD 385 would have prohibited municipalities from enacting local ordinances that restricted how close convicted sex offenders could live to schools, parks and other places where children congregate. Bill supporters said such laws, while well-intentioned, further punish sex offenders who have served their time and could result in a total ban on sex offenders within some towns.

After encountering opposition from towns and the Maine Municipal Association, lawmakers worked with critics to draft a compromise that was further tweaked during negotiations on Friday.

The version that received an “ought to pass” vote from a majority of the committee would allow towns to prohibit sex offenders from living within 750 feet of public or private schools.

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Towns could also extend that prohibition to areas around other municipal-owned properties, such as parks. Additionally, the bill would only apply to adult sex offenders convicted of felony offenses against children under age 14.

Several members voted in support of the bill despite serious reservations about the constitutionality of the restrictions as well as their effectiveness at reducing sexual abuse of children by past offenders.

“At best they are ineffective,” said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham. “They give a false sense of security. They force people to go underground and, in my mind, there are more negatives than there are positives.”

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said the worst outcome would be for the local ordinances to force sex offenders to move into rural areas far from the jobs, transportation networks and services they need to live healthful lives post conviction.

But Haskell, the sponsor of the original bill and committee co-chair, ultimately voted for the bill.

At least 18 communities in Maine have enacted some form of residency restrictions on convicted sex offenders. Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court has heard several cases challenging the local ordinances but has yet to render final decisions on those.

Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association said while her group and its members won’t be happy with the 750-foot limit, at least the bill preserves some level of local control.

The bill’s sponsors had hoped to win unanimous support from the committee, thereby strengthening its odds in the House and Senate. In the end, two lawmakers couldn’t go along with the amended bill and will submit their own recommendations to the Legislature.

The other bill, LD 1157, is similar in spirit to a measure that passed the Legislature last year but was pocket vetoed by Gov. John Baldacci. This year’s version, because of recent changes, appears to have the governor’s support, however.

The measure seeks to address criticisms that Maine’s sex offender registry is doubly punitive because it forces people to retroactively register long after they have finished serving time for their offenses.

LD 1157, sponsored by Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, does not automatically remove anyone from the registry. Instead, the bill would allow anyone convicted between Jan. 1, 1982, and June 29, 1992, to petition to not be listed in the searchable registry.

To be eligible, the person must not be a repeat violent offender, must have been discharged from jail before Sept. 1, 1998, and cannot be convicted of subsequent felonies.

The last requirement was key to winning support from several committee members.

“If a person is a convicted sex offender … and they find themselves convicted of a felony — and not just any crime, but a felony — then we have to carefully consider that,” said Rep. Christian Greeley, R-Levant.

Last year’s bill that was ultimately vetoed by Baldacci attempted to differentiate between those convicted of the most serious sexual offenses and those considered less serious, such as when a 19-year-old male is convicted of having consensual sex with his girlfriend before she turns 16.

While always controversial, Maine’s sex offender registry was thrust into the limelight in 2006 when a Canadian man killed two men whom he did not know after finding their names and addresses on the registry. One of the men had been convicted for having sex with his under-aged girlfriend.

The current bill does not seek to create such a tiered system, however.

Joy Leach, spokeswoman for Baldacci, said the subsequent compromise negotiated between lawmakers and staff from his administration likely was enough to gain the governor’s support.

Both measures now head to the full Legislature for debate.

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