ˆIt’s hard to fault the Biddeford City Council for wanting to do something, anything, to help assuage the fears and frustrations related to the sexual abuse allegations that have come to light in recent months.

The stories of abuse and the subsequent shame, anger and depression are enough to make your heart ache and blood boil, and to compel you to do whatever you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Restricting where child sex offenders can live, as Biddeford councilors did on Tuesday, is the most obvious way for the council to react. As a local legislative body, it may be all it can do.

Unfortunately, it won’t make the children of Biddeford any safer. In fact, it may make them less so.

And by seeking to bring this issue back to the Legislature, the council risks spreading this false sense of protection throughout the state.

That’s unfortunate, since Maine so recently had this debate. As recently as six years ago, communities across the state were passing local ordinances prohibiting convicted child sex offenders from living within certain distances of public facilities — such as schools and parks — frequented by children.


The prohibited distances were set as high as 2,500 feet, making most, if not all, of these communities off-limits to sex offenders, raising questions of fairness and constitutionality.

In response, lawmakers in 2009 passed a law limiting the distance to 750 feet. Since then, a number of communities, including Augusta, Bangor and South Portland, have put laws in place restricting where sex offenders can live, while Portland considered but did not pass a sex-offender ordinance in 2010.

In 2011, a bill to increase the statewide limit to 2,500 feet failed narrowly in the Legislature.

These laws have proven popular elsewhere. The results, however, are not promising.

Residency restrictions tend to push already marginalized offenders further to the margins.

They can prevent offenders from living with their family following release from prison, taking away support systems that are an important factor in keeping them from offending again.


They may prohibit offenders from taking certain jobs, or accessing certain services and rehabilitation programs, all of which are also key pieces of reducing recidivism.

And they can force offenders to move around, making it harder to keep tabs on where they are.

In Michigan and Missouri, offender laws had little to no effect on recidivism, or even on the rate of residency of offenders in prohibited areas.

In North Carolina, restrictions pushed offenders to high-poverty areas, where oversight is lax, and increased the risk of the offenders returning to jail.

And in Iowa, after five years of statewide residency restrictions, the number of convictions for child sex abuse crimes remained largely constant, while the number of offenders who failed to comply with the state sex-offender registry almost doubled.

Further rendering these laws ineffective is the fact that the vast majority of child sex offenders are known to the victim and have never been charged.

These offenders aren’t strangers hanging out by the ballfield or playground. Far more often than not, they’re a family member or close friend who exploits that connection to get close to a child.

In fact, residency restrictions would have done nothing to prevent the abuses that have been alleged in Biddeford.

Unfortunately, stopping child sex abuse is more difficult than telling offenders where they can live. In our haste to prevent the creation of more victims, we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

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