By DENISE CIVILETTI
Talk about the space between a rock and a hard place.
Riverhead has been fighting Suffolk County's stupid "trailer policy" for homeless sex offenders for more than six years — ever since the county acknowledged it was stuffing 20 or so men into a work trailer in the parking lot of the county jail to spend the night on cots.
County government repeatedly lied to us about the trailer: It was going to be moved around the county. It was secure. The homeless sex offenders were not going to be free to wander our downtown streets.
All a bunch of malarky.
When East End legislators were finally able to get enough votes in the legislature to close the trailers, then-county executive Steve Levy blocked implementation of the legislature's alternative plan to establish small-group shelters in nonresidential areas throughout the county.
Now, our new county executive, who promised us last May he'd close the trailers by the end of 2012, says the way to shut them down is to implement a new plan that will address the county's total population of registered sex offenders — not just the 40 homeless men.
All well and good. But now that I've had a "sneak peak" at the legislation that the county executive is going to lay on the table at today's general legislature meeting — along with a certificate of necessity, which allows the legislature to vote on it immediately — I'm feeling stuck in that space between a rock and a hard place. As a taxpayer.
I want the trailers shut down as much as anybody. I am appalled that our county government thinks it's acceptable to dump all of the homeless registered sex offenders in the entire county in downtown Riverhead. (To be fair, the county set up a second trailer in Westhampton, when the one at the jail became overcrowded, so there is, at least, one other community sharing the burden.) I am even more appalled that the county has been spending $1.5 million a year to taxi these men back and forth to their "home" social services office every day. That $1.5 million buys no rehabilitation services, treatment, training or anything else.
County legislators would rather waste this ridiculous sum on carfare than vote to allow homeless sex offenders to be sheltered in their own districts. Can you really blame these politicians? Residents go ballistic when they hear about homeless sex offenders in their neighborhoods. I do, you do, we all do. So let's face it: voting to establish a shelter for homeless sex offenders would be political suicide. So they'd rather waste millions on carfare than make the tough decision to adopt a reasonable plan.
As long as we're talking tough decisions and reasonable plans, let's look at why the homelessness problem among sex offenders exists to begin with. Look no further than the county legislature. It adopted residency restrictions for registered sex offenders so strict, it created the homelessness problem. Many of the men sleeping in the trailer have homes but can't live in them because of the county law, which bans them from residing within a mile of a school or day care.
Again, the legislature opted for political expediency over sound public policy, ignoring facts and statistics kept by the law enforcement agencies, and adopted residency restrictions that serve no legitimate purpose — except, I guess, appeasing their constituents.
Every residency law like Suffolk's has been thrown out when challenged in court. Suffolk's law is also before a judge and will undoubtedly meet the fate it deserves. It's a stupid law, without purpose if you take a few minutes to become informed of the facts about registered sex offenders. But that's apparently too much to ask of lawmakers nowadays.
Which brings us to the law being offered by the current county executive today.
Suffolk police chief James Burke and Parents for Megan's Law executive director told the legislature's public safety committee last week, "When you adopt this plan, you will be providing Suffolk County's most vulnerable with the toughest monitoring, enforcement and community support program in the nation."
- Yeah, every state and every politicians says stuff like this, they all think their laws are the toughest. It's like it's a race to see who can be the toughest while actually doing nothing.
But what does it really do to address the problem of sexual crimes, particularly sexual crimes against children?
Not a whole heck of a lot, actually. It deals only with sex offenders who have already been caught and convicted, people who are already on the sex-offender registry. All well and good, but sexual crimes against children committed by people previously convicted and already registered represent only 5 percent of sexual crimes against children.
Got that? Ninety-five percent of sex crimes against kids are committed by people who are not on the sex offender registry. They are committed by people who are family members or friends of the families of the abused children.
"You're more likely to find a picture of the person molesting your child in a family photo album than in a sex offender registry," says Shana Rowan, executive director of USA Fair, Inc., a nonprofit organization advocating reform of sex offender registry laws.
So does it really make sense, then, to spend $900,000 a year — the amount the county will pay the Parents for Megan's Law group under the new plan — to better monitor already-registered sex offenders? Sure, it makes more sense to spend that kind of dough on monitoring 1,000 registered sex offenders than on taxiing 40 homeless ones around the county. But it seems to me just another example of lawmakers doing something (expensive) that sounds good to constituents but really doesn't address the core issue.
- So the state is paying Parents for Megan's law to monitor offenders instead of police? Sounds like a conflict of interest to me!
What does the county plan to do to about the 95 percent of sex crimes committed against kids by people unknown to law enforcement? No mention of that by either the police chief or the victims' advocate last week. And, sadly, no legislator asked the question, even after psychologist Bill O'Leary, who spends his life treating sex offenders, raised the issue.
O'Leary told me in an interview he believes the best thing the county could do to prevent the 95 percent of sex crimes against kids by perpetrators who haven't yet been caught is to beef up the child protective services unit. Hire more CPS investigators. Instead, the county cut CPS.
So back to that spot between a rock and a hard place.
Close the dumb trailers by approving a law that spends nearly a million bucks a year to do something that won't — can't – put a dent in the real problem? Or reject the law, knowing full well that the political stalemate that's kept the trailers open will continue — at least until a court throws out the residency restrictions that made most of those men homeless in the first place?
And they wonder why people have lost faith in government.
Before we start yelling about how bad government and politicians are, we should look in the mirror. I think our knee-jerk, govern-by-sound-bite government — at every level of government in this republic – is the government we've got because it's the government we deserve. We're content to be hysterical and ill-informed about so many issues. Sex offenders is just one of them. Unless we own up to that and start putting time and effort into being an informed electorate, we don't have the right to demand anything more.
- Suffolk County Changes Course On Homeless Sex Offender Housing Plan
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