Sex offender restrictions spur debate

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted July 01, 2010, at 9:52 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — State legislators passed a law last year that allows municipalities to adopt reasonable residency restrictions for registered sex offenders.

Bangor resident Angela Hoy was amazed to learn recently — after a sex offender moved into her neighborhood — that her city didn’t already have restrictions in place.

Hoy recently asked a lawyer to draft a proposed ordinance that would restrict sex offenders in Bangor from living within 750 feet of a park, school or any other place where children are the primary users. Her proposal mirrors the exact limit that was spelled out by LD 385 last year.

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Members of the Bangor City Council’s government operations committee are expected to discuss Hoy’s proposal at a meeting on July 13, but officials said the matter is much more complicated than simply imposing restrictions.

“It would be problematic in a number of ways,” said Dennis Marble, executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. His facility on Main Street houses sex offenders from time to time and sits directly across the street from Davenport Park. “We’ve always tried to be thoughtful of who we accept, but my concern is that local unilateral actions have unintended consequences.”

Denise Lord, associate commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said there are no data that suggest enforcing residency restrictions on sex offenders is successful.

“The research is clear that restrictions don’t improve public safety,” she said. “In fact, areas that have imposed restrictions have had negative impacts … like pushing offenders underground.”Hoy lives near a park off Newbury Street in Bangor and discovered recently that a sex offender lived in an apartment overlooking the park. As the mother of a 3-year-old, an 8-year-old and a teenager, she was alarmed.

“We thought it was illegal for sex offenders to live near parks, schools, and other places where children congregate,” she said. “I’m sure other parents in Bangor naively believe that as well.”

Hoy’s proposal would permit offenders to live in their current residences if they happen to fall within the 750-foot barrier. There are currently 209 registered sex offenders living in Bangor, according to the state’s online sex offender registry.

There is no statewide law regarding where sex offenders can live, although some offenders can have restrictions as part of their conditions of release. Until LD 385 passed, municipalities were free to impose virtually any restrictions they wanted. Some did, although several others were rejected by courts for being too restrictive, including a 2,500-foot ordinance in Westbrook that was struck down.

The 750-foot limit that was agreed upon was a compromise from the state’s initial proposal that sought to prevent municipalities from adopting any restrictions.

“We were concerned about the growing number of inconsistent ordinances,” Lord said. “Each town was getting a little more restrictive than the next, so we thought a standardized statewide [criterion] was a good compromise.”

Kate Dufour with the Maine Municipal Association, which worked to ensure the compromise, agreed.

“The initial proposal was a complete preemption of local authority,” she said. “It was [the state] saying we know best. This is an important issue for municipalities, and we did give up some home rule authority.”

Dufour emphasized that she understands that sex offenders have rights and shouldn’t be driven underground where they cannot access resources they need. Hoy said she was concerned about the high number of sex offenders living in Bangor, but officials said service centers always have more offenders because of the rental housing stock, jobs, transportation and other services such as counseling.

Shawn Yardley, Bangor’s director of health and community services, predicted that the residency restriction debate will be interesting among city councilors, but he didn’t offer a strong recommendation.

“The devil would be in the details,” said Yardley, who worked for the state Department of Health and Human Services for 17 years. “Certainly, I would want to look at categories of sex offenders, rather than to put them all on the same level. It should be a thoughtful process of balancing rights and making them workable, but it’s a tough one.”

Yardley said one could draw concentric 750-foot circles around Bangor’s parks, schools and other areas where children congregate and it probably wouldn’t leave many housing options.

City Council Chairman Richard Stone said he hasn’t thought that much about restrictions on sex offenders but would go into the discussion with an open mind.

Hoy has a more personal investment in the issue. She has two immediate family members who were molested as children and said that is why she feels so strongly about protecting children.

“We are determined to fight this and to force the Bangor City Council to pass an ordinance restricting residency of sex offenders in Bangor,” she said.

Lord said she understands the concerns of parents like Hoy but also said those concerns don’t always match up with reality.

“Despite what people think, recidivism rates [for sex offenders] are low and when they do reoffend, the victim is known to the perpetrator,” she said. “So if the public wants to take precautions, family members can and should do that. But it’s much easier to manage when you know where offenders are, rather than forcing them underground, which is what happens when restrictions are imposed.”

Marble agreed and pointed to the very public case in Florida recently where dozens of sex offenders were forced to live under a bridge because they had nowhere else to go.

“The cycle we’re in right now is one of fear and anger, and we’re looking for people to blame,” he said. “They are an easy target.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/07/01/news/bangor/sex-offender-restrictions-spur-debate/ printed on July 23, 2014