Politics

March 9, 2013

Officials seek law change to segregate sex offenders

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Three Augusta city councilors and Rep. Matt Pouliot tried to convince a legislative committee Friday to modify a state law so the city can prohibit sex offenders from living near the Capitol Area Recreation Association ballfields on the city's east side.

Councilors David Rollins, Patrick Paradis and Cecil Munson all testified in favor of L.D. 498 before the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

In January, the council passed an ordinance to prohibit sex offenders from living within 750 feet of any municipal property where children are the primary users. The councilors are seeking a change in state law because the land between Hospital Street and Cony Road is owned by the state -- not the city -- so the city has no power to prohibit residence near the fields.

"It was painfully obvious to me that there's a major hole in the safety net," Rollins said.

Rollins described the area as wooded and "a good location for people who prey on children." The fields were once used by Augusta Mental Health Institute patients to grow crops.

Pouliot, an Augusta Republican, said the 80 acres that include soccer, baseball and softball fields are used by children from across the state. An amended version of the bill he presented Friday would give the city the power to prevent sex offenders from living within 750 feet of the playing fields.

"Due to its central location and accessibility via major arteries, the CARA complex has become a mecca for tournaments, youth, school and special events and is used by thousands of children each year," he said.

Opponents of the bill said these types of measures give parents a false sense of security and force rehabilitated sex offenders to go underground, where it's more difficult for law enforcement to continue to monitor them.

Susan Wiechman, a regional correctional manager for the state's Sex Offender Management Program, said most sex crimes are committed against family members and friends of family members.

"Through my observations, the increased stress that is caused to an offender when they lose housing and housing options exacerbates their already limited coping skills," she said. "The fact that an offender is known to the community actually decreases the chance that the offender will offend in that community."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine made similar arguments, saying there's no evidence that residency restrictions keep children safe from predators.

"Parents think that if they know where the offender is on the street, they can protect their children from him, thus keeping their children safe," said Oamshri Amarasingham, a lawyer with the civil liberties union. "This creates an illusion of safety because, as already mentioned, most sexual crimes against children are committed by family members or people known by the victim."

The committee will take up the bill in a work session scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday. Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, a former chairman of the committee, asked his fellow legislators to do their homework in preparation for the next meeting. He said the 2009 law that allows municipalities to restrict where sex offenders can live was crafted carefully after months of deliberations.

The current chairman, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said it's important to keep all sides in mind.

"We have tried to, over the years, take it very seriously and protect our children," he said. "We can certainly understand the public's concern, but over the years we've been very concerned about creating a false sense of security."

 

Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at:
scover@mainetoday.com

 

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