‘A False Sense of Security’

Posted Aug. 16, 2010, at 5:58 p.m.

The Bangor City Council will soon consider an ordinance forbidding sex offenders from living within 750 feet of a playground or school. While such an ordinance may make councilors feel as though they are protecting children and families, there is little evidence that this is true. In fact, research has shown that such restrictions often force sex offenders to hide their whereabouts or live on the street. In both instances, there is less oversight.

Worse, such restrictions may be unconstitutional.

That, however, didn’t stop the Maine Legislature from passing a law last year allowing communities to enact such restrictions when the victim was under 14 years old. The law has the benefit of not being retroactive, but the state’s attorney general was not asked to assess whether it was constitutional. Around the country, some residency restrictions have been upheld, while others have been struck down.

Aside from the legal concerns, there is no evidence that such restrictions are effective. The majority of sex crimes are committed by people — often family members — who know their victims.

“At best they are ineffective,” Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said during a May 2009 debate on the legislation. “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.

The Maine Municipal Association advocated for residency restrictions as a means of local control. Portland rejected such restrictions in June.

Bangor was asked to consider such a move by a resident concerned about the safety of her five children. About 200 registered sex offenders are living in the city. The city’s government operations committee voted 2-1 last week to pass the proposed ordinance to the full council.

As drafted, the proposed ordinance would put about one-third of the city off-limits to those convicted of sex offenses against children under 14. The restrictions would apply only to those convicted in the future so that sex offenders now living within 750 feet of a school or playground would not be forced to move.

A better approach would be to classify sex offenders by the severity of their crime. Those in the top tier should face tough restrictions as part of their sentencing with fewer requirements for low-level offenders. Someone who had sex with an underage girlfriend (this was the case with one of the men killed in 2006 by a vigilante who found his name on the state’s sex offender registry) should not be treated the same as a serial child rapist.

In addition, if lawmakers wanted to place further restrictions on some sex offenders, they could write a law to include such considerations in sentencing and probation guidelines. This would leave punishment in the hands of the judicial system where it belongs.