By Nick McCrea
BANGOR - City councilors will decide Monday whether to ban convicted sex offenders from moving to within 750 feet of publicly owned property used primarily by children — the same idea councilors shot down in a lopsided 8-1 vote 28 months ago.
The residency restriction would apply to individuals convicted of Class A, B or C sex offenses committed against a child under age 14. Offenders in that category who currently live within a 750-foot boundary wouldn’t be required to move. However, if they did move, it would have to be outside a restricted zone and they could not move back into a restricted area. That’s the most restrictive ordinance allowed under Maine law.
The ordinance, which councilors dusted off again for a series of committee meetings beginning in March, does not apply to privately owned facilities, such as museums or day cares.
Residents attending committee meetings, both in 2010 and more recently, largely supported the restrictions.
“At this point in time, I would welcome any restrictions on the locations of sex offenders in any manner,” Steven Hicks of Sanford Street said during an April 17 Government Operations Committee meeting. “I don’t want to be welcoming to them.”
There are 141 registered sex offenders living in Bangor, with 21 coming from out of state. Another 35 convicted sex offenders work in Bangor but live elsewhere. About 73 of those registered offenders living in Bangor committed their crimes against someone under age 14 and would be targeted under the statute, according to City Councilor Pauline Civiello. Civiello said she was concerned that Bangor might be attracting offenders.
Donna Wright of Ohio Street also welcomed the proposed restrictions.
“We are not trying to welcome more and more of these people into the community,” Wright said. “Let us not be worried so much about their rights, but let’s be a little more concerned about the message that we’re sending.”
In 2010, councilors who voted against the residency restriction did so because they felt it was a feel-good ordinance that wouldn’t improve children’s safety. Some were concerned it might make children less safe by giving parents a false sense of security.
Councilor David Nealley, who is on the council again this year, was the only councilor to vote in favor of the residency restriction in 2010, arguing it would have sent a strong message.
Studies conducted across the country call into question whether sex offender residency restrictions are effective. Several reports provided by city staff to the council in both 2010 and again this year indicate that the ordinances typically prove ineffective.
In Minnesota, the state’s Department of Corrections conducted studies in 2003 and 2007 and found that there was no evidence that residential proximity to schools or parks affected recidivism rates, as people who offend tend to do so away from their own neighborhoods. The department’s research also found that pushing high-risk sex offenders to rural or suburban areas resulted in less access to services and supervision.
Studies in Iowa, Colorado, California, Florida and other states showed similar outcomes.
National studies indicate that more than 90 percent of child sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone who knows the child, oftentimes in the offender’s or victim’s home, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“These sorts of restrictions, while well-intentioned, will only make our communities less safe by creating a false sense of security while doing nothing to reduce recidivism,” said Rachel Healy, director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Rather than passing ineffective, fear-driven policies, we should be focused on proven solutions that actually keep our kids safe.”
Councilor Nelson Durgin, who was on the 2010 council, shared those same concerns during the April 17 committee meeting. He said he would be voting against the ordinance for a second time on Monday.
Maine municipalities have differed widely on the issue of sex offender residency restrictions.
Portland rejected an ordinance in early 2010, shortly before Bangor took the same step. The issue has not resurfaced there, according to city staff.
Westbrook had a more strict ordinance in place prior to 2010, before it had to dial its rules back after the restriction was challenged in court. The ordinance in its original form included a sex offender residency ban in commercial zones and other parts of the city, effectively prohibiting offenders from living most anywhere in Westbrook, according to police Capt. Tom Roth.
“It seems to be working for us now, but I think that’s because we have such high scrutiny on sex offenders,” Roth said.
Augusta police Chief Robert Gregoire said the capital city’s council passed a sex offender residency ordinance in January. He said the ordinance had solid community support. Gregoire said he didn’t think it would reduce the number of sex offenders in Augusta, which is home to 116 registered offenders.
“This may not have any measurable effect,” but it puts people at ease,” Gregoire said.