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Can bans protect kids from attack?

7-16-2006 Massachusetts:

Residents of Hill Farm Estates in Shrewsbury were not pleased when they learned that a convicted sex offender had rented a room just outside their subdivision and near a school bus stop. They waged a campaign to force him out, police said, posting his picture on telephone poles, mailing him intimidating letters, and calling his boss -- a local contractor -- to cancel home improvement projects.

Shrewsbury Police Chief Wayne Sampson said the situation last year put him in the odd position of protecting a child molester who had already served a 1 1/2-year sentence.

``They went after him with such a vengeance we had to call a neighborhood meeting," he said. ``We had to be very proactive to prevent residents from becoming vigilantes. It was that serious."

The incident prompted Republican state Representative Karyn Polito, who lives in Shrewsbury, to file legislation that would stiffen penalties for sex offenses and impose ``predator-free zones" that would limit where offenders could live.

Meanwhile, Marlborough is considering an ordinance that would ban sex offenders from living in 95 percent of the city; it is one of several communities in the state considering such a measure .

The residency restrictions are promoted as a way to keep potential predators away from places where children gather, such as schools and playgrounds. But opponents -- including some police chiefs as well as advocates for victims -- say the restrictions could boomerang.

``I think these are well-intended but short-sighted efforts," said Andrea Casanova , co founder of the Ally Foundation in Boston. Casanova's daughter, Alexandra Nicole Zapp, was murdered four years ago at a rest area along Route 24 in Bridgewater by a repeat sex offender who was on probation. She said she views residential restrictions as a way of pushing the problem away instead of tackling it head on.

``Believe me, we support accountability for sex offenders," she said. ``But there have been some serious unintended consequences with distance restrictions."

Casanova cited problems reported in Iowa, which enacted some of the toughest sex offender laws in the country after the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl. The state Legislature banned sex offenders whose victims are minors from living within 2,000 feet of a school or licensed day-care provider as part of a larger effort to toughen sex offender rules.

But after the restrictions became law last year, sex offenders went underground. The Des Moines Register reported that the number of sex offenders who had not registered with the state doubled from 142 to 298 between June 2005 and January. An informal group of prosecutors and police now opposes the law.

Polito said she drew up her proposal after meeting with a group of mothers from Hill Farm Estates.

The convicted sex offender living nearby was classified by the state as a level 3 offender, or a person at the highest risk for reoffending. According to court records, he was convicted in 2002 in Worcester of indecent assault on a child younger than 14.

Sex offenders are required to register with the state, and information about level 2 and 3 offenders is made available through the Sex Offender Registry Board. When parents in Hill Farm Estates learned about the offender living nearby, they went on alert. Polito said one mother described how her daughter saw unidentified footprints in the snow in their backyard and thought it was ``that scary man up the street."

``It was too close for comfort," Polito said.

A three-term incumbent , Polito said she reviewed state laws and found them too lenient. In addition to banning sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or place where children congregate, her proposal includes longer mandatory sentences for sex crimes and would require the state to monitor sex offenders with global positioning systems.

When asked if her proposed predator-free zones would effectively banish sex offenders from places like Shrewsbury, she called it a good ``place to begin the discussion."

``Massachusetts is one of the weakest states when it comes to laws pertaining to sex offenders," she said, citing conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly's web site. ``These are individuals who are likely to re offend."

Gauging the likelihood that a sex offender will re offend is tricky. The Sex Offender Registry Board, responsible for classifying and registering sex offenders, does not compile statistics on how many of its subjects reoffend, according to spokesman Charles McDonald.

Gerald Koocher , dean of the School for Health Studies at Simmons College and former chief of psychology at Children's Hospital Boston, said researchers have not established conclusively whether sex offenders are more likely than, say, robbers or drunk drivers to repeat their crimes. Efforts to rehabilitate some repeat sex offenders have not been considered successful, he said.

Koocher said it is a common myth, not supported by research, that a person who is a Peeping Tom is on a path toward becoming a more violent offender, like a serial rapist. ``The problem is, we're trying to legislate with a shotgun," he said. ``Behavioral scientists aren't going to be able to give an answer with our current state of technology and research. So these end up being political questions."

Many of the state's most dangerous convicted sex offenders are sent to Bridgewater State Hospital after they have finished serving their prison sentences. There they are monitored by the Department of Correction .

According to one of the only studies of its kind, released by the US Justice Department in 2003, 5 percent of sex offenders were rearrested within three years of their release from prison, and 3.5 percent were reconvicted of a sex crime. Of the 9,700 male sex offenders studied, 4,300 were child molesters, and 3.3 percent were arrested for another sex crime against a child within three years.

David Medoff , a clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who has worked with sex offenders for more than a decade, said their crimes are rarely random. The vast majority either know or are related to their victims. To him, bans on where they can live often create only an illusion of safety.

``The reality is, if I'm a sex offender, I'm not going to reoffend again on my street," he said.

In Shrewsbury , Sampson, who is president of the state Association of Chiefs of Police, said that while he supports tougher penalties for and better monitoring of sex offenders, he opposes residency requirements.

``It's feel-good legislation that probably isn't going to be that effective," he said. ``And it's extremely difficult to enforce."

But the race to enact such restrictions for sex offenders is gaining steam.

Polito said that if other states place tougher residency restrictions on sex offenders than Massachusetts, this state will ``become more of a magnet" for them. She has vowed to reintroduce her proposal if it languishes in the House Rules Committee this session.

Marlborough Police Chief Mark Leonard said he supports, with reservations, the proposed Marlborough ordinance, which would ban sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school or day-care center. An analysis by Marlborough has shown that the ban, proposed by City Councilor Steven Levy , would make 95 percent of the city off-limits to sex offenders. Revere and Taunton have similar rules, and Fitchburg is seriously considering them.

``Unfortunately, our hand is forced if all the communities around us jump on board," Leonard said. ``We don't want to be the last one to do it."

The Marlborough restrictions would apply only to level 2 or 3 sex offenders and would not affect anyone who already owns property in the city; renters would have 30 days to move or face fines.

Polito's legislation would apply to level 3 sex offenders convicted of an offense involving a child, and to level 1 or 2 offenders convicted of more than one sex offense with a child.

Dennis T. Peters, the sex offender whom the Shrewsbury residents succeeded in driving out of town, is now back behind bars, serving a six-month sentence for failing to update police when he changed employers.

Where will he go when he is released? Sampson hopes it isn't Shrewsbury.

``The last thing we want to do is turn around and prosecute our citizens because they were trying to protect their children," he said. ..more.. by Megan Woolhouse

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