PORTLAND — Hoping to win over a skeptical City Council, the Police Department has scaled back its plan to prohibit convicted sex offenders from living near schools and city parks.

Rather than restrict all sex offenders, the police are now proposing that only the highest-risk offenders be restricted.

“We are trying to pinpoint the highest-risk offenders so we can protect the citizens of Portland,” Assistant Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Tuesday at a meeting of the council’s Public Safety Committee.

Police Chief James Craig began pushing for the measure in December, after announcing that 17 sex offenders were living in apartment buildings across Cumberland Avenue from Portland High School, near the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine.

Craig noted that Los Angeles, where he was a police officer for most of his career, restricts where sex offenders may live.

The original proposal would have affected all sex offenders. The new plan would restrict only those whom police deem the most dangerous. Police would assess the risk level of each offender using a point system.

For example, a violent sex offender whose victims were strangers and who is using drugs would be considered a greater risk to the public than an offender who has committed only one offense and whose victim was a family member.

High-risk offenders would not be allowed to live near schools, parks or recreational facilities.

Like the original plan, the proposal lists three possible boundaries: 250 feet, 500 feet and 750 feet. The proposal would not apply to sex offenders now living within those boundaries.

There are 170 sex offenders living in Portland. Based on the proposed assessment, 27 of them would be restricted, Sauschuck said.

More than a dozen communities in Maine, including Gorham, Westbrook, Waterboro, Buxton, Hollis and Baldwin, have adopted ordinances restricting where sex offenders may live.

Some have established zones as far as 2,500 feet from schools. Those communities had to modify ordinances two years ago, after the Legislature passed a bill saying the restrictions cannot extend beyond 750 feet from schools.

In Portland, an exclusionary zone of 750 feet would effectively ban sex offenders from the city’s peninsula, except for neighborhoods near St. John Street and Maine Medical Center.

While the state law allows communities to establish residency ordinances, it doesn’t explicitly say that landlords can evict tenants who violate the ordinances, said Portland’s assistant city attorney, Mary Costigan. She said she expects that an eviction would face a legal challenge.

Carleton Winslow, a Portland landlord who is vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners & Managers Association, said the proposal’s vague legal standing seems troublesome.

“I see myself having an eviction fight in the courts,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting.

After the Police Department’s first proposal was submitted, a majority of the city councilors either opposed the measure or questioned whether it would have unintended consequences.

Councilor Dory Waxman, who sponsored the measure, said the new version has strong support from neighborhood associations. She said she doesn’t know whether the changes will appease opponents on the council.

“This is the best compromise we have come up with so far,” she said. “We have neighborhood support. We just need council support now.”

The Public Safety Committee plans to vote on the issue next month. Councilor Dan Skolnik, who chairs the committee, said the issue is important enough for his committee to forward it to the council for consideration.

He said he plans to vote against it because residency restrictions have not proven to be effective.

Authorities would have more success managing the behavior of sex offenders by taking a “person-by-person” approach than by branding them with a “scarlet letter” and restricting where they can live, Skolnik said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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