BANGOR, Maine — The City Council will vote Wednesday on a controversial ordinance amendment that would place restrictions on where registered sex offenders may live and as a result make approximately one-third of the city off-limits to them.
The amendment as drafted would create 750-foot buffers around schools, parks, playgrounds and other areas where children are the primary users. The change does not apply retroactively, which means sex offenders now living within the restricted zone would not be forced to move.
The restrictions also would apply only to offenders who have committed felonies against victims under the age of 14.
In August, the council’s government operations committee forwarded the ordinance change request to the full council. The issue was brought to the city in July by resident Angela Hoy, who crafted an ordinance change with the help of a local lawyer. Her proposal mirrors the exact limit that was spelled out by LD 385, a state law passed last year.
One councilor, Geoff Gratwick, has said publicly that the ordinance change is a feel-good law that would likely do little to improve safety. Police Chief Ron Gastia agreed in a recent workshop that the change likely would not affect the community’s safety.
Gratwick even requested another workshop to discuss the ordinance change further, but his fellow councilors decided that wasn’t necessary.
If passed on Wednesday, the residency restrictions would make about one-third of Bangor unavailable to offenders, including a large part of the urban core, where many rental properties are located. One of the biggest reasons registered sex offenders tend to live in service centers such as Bangor is the availability of rental housing and because support services are more prevalent in cities.
Bangor has more than 200 registered sex offenders living within the city limits, although it’s unclear how many of them have committed felonies on victims under age 14. Already, offenders are required to register with the state’s online database, but they also are monitored regularly by one of Gastia’s officers.
Bangor’s proposal would give an offender who violates the new local law 25 days to vacate the residence.
Laws that restrict where registered sex offenders can live have become more prevalent during the past decade. More than 30 states and hundreds of municipalities have enacted laws that bar sex offenders from residing near schools, parks, playgrounds and day care centers. The specified distance from a school or other venue typically varies from 500 to 2,500 feet in municipalities across the country. Many are modeled after Florida’s “Jessica’s Law,” named for a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped and killed by a molester.
There is no statewide law regarding where sex offenders may live, although some offenders can have restrictions as part of their conditions of release. Until LD 385 passed last year, municipalities were free to impose virtually any restrictions they wanted. Some municipalities saw their ordinances rejected by courts for being too restrictive, including a 2,500-foot ordinance in Westbrook that was struck down.
No state agency in Maine tracks which towns have implemented local restrictions since LD 385 went into effect. Earlier this year, Portland city councilors rejected a proposal to create residency restrictions.
Not everyone thinks restrictions are a good idea. Denise Lord, associate commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said recently 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.”
The most visible example of that was last year in a Florida city where dozens of sex offenders were forced to live under a bridge because residency restrictions barred them from living elsewhere.
Although some civil rights groups have argued that residency restrictions are unconstitutional, courts have tended to favor restrictions when laws are challenged.
Recently, the California Supreme Court upheld residency restrictions for sex offenders, ruling that thousands may be barred from living near schools and parks even if their sex crimes were committed years before the restrictions became law.