Monday, February 18, 2008

Massachusetts Town Seeking to Create "Off Limits" Areas for Sex Offenders

After a rape of a six year-old boy at a public library, the New York Times is reporting that the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts is attempting to pass legislation that would “bar high-risk sex offenders from entering or coming within a certain distance of numerous public places.” Other cities in the area are also considering similar legislation.

In response to this incident, the mayor is seeking such legislation that would require known “high-risk” sex offenders to leave the area if caught within such a restricted area. If the offender refused to leave, the person would be arrested. The mayor likens this regulation to the parole standards sex offenders are already limited by in that “they are not to mix or interfere with children”; the proposed ordinance would, according to the mayor, just build on these restrictions by creating areas where children are known to be on regular occasion, and preventing sex offenders from entering these locations.

Already in response to the incident the public library has set up computers at the doorways that flash pictures of known sex offenders. Aside from this visual identification method, it is being proposed that people entering the locations would need to present valid identification; in doing so, library staff could more readily identify offenders by more than just a visual comparison to potentially outdated pictures.

States have already attempted to pass legislation which limits where sex offenders may live, setting forth adequate distances from schools and other locations which are heavily populated by children. Just as these previous attempts to protect children have been met with somewhat different results, there is a possibility that the legislation being considered in New Bedford may come under Constitutional scrutiny. It is feared that the designation of “off-limit” locations for these sex offenders may not be specific enough and open the door for the creation of unlimited such locations; such a broad power could potentially interfere with these people’s fundamental rights.

While it is certainly difficult to argue with the need to protect children from such sexual predators, it would in fact seem that the passage of such an ordinance would not pass a Constitutional challenge. While it is easy to classify schools, playgrounds and kid focused areas such as some restaurants, the same is not true of all locations. To prevent people from entering a library or a museum merely because a large number of children visit these locations would seem to deny people of their rights to attempt to better themselves through continued learning. Therefore, in order to help ensure that such an ordinance would be found Constitutional, it would seem that the key would be to enumerate specific criteria for what constitutes “off limits” areas. Unfortunately, this may not cover all the areas the city would like it to, but at least there would be a start and increased awareness of this regrettable situation.

1 comment:

LaurenA said...

The difficulty with protection attempts that involve geographical restrictions is that they presume that sex crimes are a function of geography and context. This is a dubious premise, and can be readily addressed by eliminating isolated areas, and observing the "two-deep" rule that many organizations have implemented: if an adult needs time with a child, another adult should be present.
But the greater problem in these protection efforts is that they fail to take into account that almost 90% of sex crimes against kids are perpetrated by known and familiar adults - family members, friends and trusted adults. These individuals may eventually be listed on sex offender registries, after they have committed their crimes, but by then, much of the damage has been done. Dean Arthur Schwartzmiller, for example, allegedly molested 36,000 children before his most recent arrest, and he no doubt did so by deception and seduction, and geographical limitations would have had little effect on his predations.
Instead of creating 'off limits' areas for sex offenders, legislators would do better to strengthen the mandated reporting system, which requires licensed professionals like nurses, dentists, social workers and others to report indications of a child at risk, which then results in action by law enforcement. If this system were bolstered by updated training, enforcement of reporting laws and public education, predators might be stopped early in their careers.