November 4, 2012

Gardiner, Augusta city officials consider restrictions on where sex offenders can live

Overly restrictive rules do more harm than good, experts claim; state law also needs consideration

By Paul Koenig pkoenig@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

GARDINER -- City councilors are considering whether to restrict where some sex offenders can live, while officials a few miles north in Augusta are already debating a similar ordinance.

The issue in Gardiner arose after residents around Lincoln Avenue expressed concern to Councilor Scott Williams about a sex offender who moved into the neighborhood in September.

"There was a lot of outrage about it," he said.

Gardiner councilors meet Wednesday at 7 p.m. at City Hall. In Augusta, city councilors will continue their discussion at an informational meeting Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Council Chambers at City Center.

Williams and residents in the neighborhood were surprised to learn that the city of Gardiner doesn't have any ordinances restricting where sex offenders can live.

"I believe it help keeps our kids safe in school, and I think it gives people a good sense of mind that their kids will be safe around day cares and schools," he said, regarding residential restrictions.

Maine law says municipalities may prohibit sex offenders convicted of Class A, B or C crimes committed against minors younger than 14 years of age from living with 750 feet a public or private elementary, middle or high school or a municipally owned property where children are the primary users.

Williams said he's seeking to establish an ordinance similar to the town of Oakland's residential restriction ordinance, which prohibits sex offenders from living with 750 feet of a school that provides services to 25 or more students under the age of 14 years, or any licensed day care that is clearly marked with at least one sign.

But Maine's law doesn't specifically allow for residential restrictions around day cares.

Oakland Town Manager Peter Nielsen said he wasn't aware of the discrepancy and that the town intended to be in sync with the Maine law when they amended the ordinance in 2009, after the state passed its law.

"We certainly don't want to be outside of state law," he said.

Williams also said he wasn't aware that day cares can't be included in restrictions of sex offenders' residences.

The Legislature passed the law dictating what restrictions municipalities could enact in 2009, in response to communities enacting overly strict residential restrictions for sex offenders, said state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, who cosponsored the bill. Gerzofsky said the original bill he supported didn't allow municipalities to restrict where sex offenders can live, but the 750-foot maximum distance in the final law was a compromise.

The city of Westbrook had an ordinance on the books banning any sex offenders whose crime was committed against a minor from living or working within 2,500 feet of any school, day care, park or recreation area frequented by minors. City councilors grudgingly amended the ordinance in 2009 to comply with state law, according to a Portland Press Herald story at the time.

Restrictions questioned

Opponents of residential restrictions for sex offenders say they can have the opposite effect on well-intentioned towns looking to keep children safe.

Alysia Melnick, public policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said restricting where sex offenders live can destabilize them by not allowing offenders to be close to members of their support systems and needed resources. On top of that, the restrictions can create a false sense of security for parents, she said, since predators usually choose victims close to them relationship-wise, not geographically.

"It's hard for us to understand why communities continue to push for this kind of restriction instead seeking to find real solutions that would actually impact the problem of sexual victimization," she said.

Melnick added that research has shown no correlation between residential restrictions and a reduction in sexual abuse allegations.

(Continued on page 2)

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