October 20, 2010

Court hears sex offender housing case

10-20-2010 Pennsylvania:

Plaintiffs say ordinance left them with nowhere to live

Local residency restrictions that force sex offenders to live in outlying communities -- away from jobs, transportation, family and treatment -- are contrary to the goals of rehabilitation and reintegration.

More than that, opponents argued before the state Supreme Court Tuesday, such patchwork community regulations run counter to the uniform system administered by the state Board of Probation and Parole.

Pennsylvania's Megan's Law, said attorney Donald Driscoll, is -- and should be -- the controlling legislation for sex offenders.

Mr. Driscoll represents six convicted offenders who filed a federal lawsuit against Allegheny County in 2008.

In 2007, Allegheny County Council passed a bill that bans convicted sex offenders registered under Megan's Law from living within 2,500 feet of a child care facility, recreational facility, community center, public park or school.

The plaintiffs sued a year later, alleging that the ordinance was so restrictive that it eliminated nearly all of the city of Pittsburgh and much of Allegheny County.

In March 2009, U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster struck down the county ordinance, saying that it conflicted with state law. The county appealed the issue to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which asked the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

During the county's 20 minutes of argument Tuesday, the justices repeatedly questioned Assistant County Solicitor Craig Maravich on the issue of uniformity across Pennsylvania in dealing with sex offenders.

"How can the county of Allegheny limit the parole board in its state required duties to give these people housing?" Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille asked Mr. Maravich.

"We are not pre-empting the board from doing its job," the county's attorney answered.

Parole officers still consider an offender's crime and develop a sufficient home plan, he said. Mr. Maravich noted, too, that the state parole board chose not to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of either side of the debate.

But for Justice Max Baer, the idea of dozens of these types of regulations across Pennsylvania raises the specter of trouble.

"The state has said we want a uniform, statewide system of regulation, and this would encroach on that," Justice Baer said, noting that there are 130 municipalities in Allegheny County and 67 counties in Pennsylvania. "My concern, are we going to have this patchwork of indecipherable, variable standards?"

That is exactly what Mr. Driscoll believes will happen if the Supreme Court allows the ordinance to stand.

"If an individual is forced out of Allegheny County, it's not going to be long before Beaver County does the same thing," he said.

But Mr. Maravich told the court that even under the local ordinance, approximately 48 percent of the square footage of Allegheny County would remain available to sex offenders to live.

Some of the justices were suspicious.

"It covers almost all of the city of Pittsburgh," the chief justice said.

"That probably includes the Mon River, a bridge," added Justice J. Michael Eakin. "There's probably not much left."

According to Mr. Driscoll, the original lawsuit was filed, in part, after some sex offenders due for release by the state were kept in custody because where they planned to live was made off-limits by the ordinance.

That particular concern has faded, though, because after the litigation was filed, the county agreed not to enforce the new regulation. ..Source.. Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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