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.
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.
Gerzofsky, who is well-versed on the subject during his time in the Legislature and his work on the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said other legislators have often put bills forth trying to amend the law by placing restrictions on sex offenders that would lead to the offenders not being able to live anywhere is some communities.
“When you make residential requirements so stringent that they live under bridges or live in the most rural parts of our states, then you have a problem,” he said.
‘The world doesn’t work that way’
Discussion of a potential ordinance in Gardiner is only in early stages, so it isn’t clear how much of the city would be affected by an ordinance. Any ordinance passed wouldn’t affect sex offenders currently living in Gardiner, which has 24 residents listed in Maine’s sex offender registry.
Augusta Police Chief Robert Gregoire said he’ll help present a map at Thursday’s City Council meeting, showing the potential affected areas of an ordinance.
Augusta has 137 registered sex offenders, according to the registry. Gregoire said there have only been a few complaints about where sex offenders live, and most of them have come through city councilors.
“It’s something that has to be approached in a serious manner. You don’t want to overreact,” he said.
Gardiner Police Chief James Toman said he hasn’t thoroughly researched the effect of residential restrictions for sex offenders yet. But he does support parents educating their children about appropriate conduct to prevent sexual abuse.
Most of the officers know where the registered sex offenders live, Toman said, and he’s more concerned about unknown sex offenders.
Melnick and Gerzofsky agreed that education is a crucial to preventing sexual abuse. Melnick said helping parents and children at schools, churches and community centers learn about the dangers of sexual predators is a better use of resources than worrying about where sex offenders live.”I think people are very rightly very, very disturbed by the idea that a convicted sex offender might be around children and have access to victimize more people,” Melnick said.
But residential restrictions have been around for long enough to know they don’t work, she said.
Gerzofsky said the state has been more effective fighting child abuse by ensuring more offenders are charged and appropriately sentenced, through holding judges accountable for the punishments they levy. He also said that by not having a high mandatory prison sentence, as in some states, fewer victims are forced to endure a painful trial.
“Every community would like to ban bad people from their community and ship them off to another community,” Gerzofsky said. “But the world doesn’t work that way.”
Paul Koenig — 621-5663