November 15, 2011

Lake County mulls new restrictions for sex offenders

11-15-2011 Florida:

SORRENTO — Awakened by fears that a sex-offender village will pop up here, Lake County commissioners will consider new restrictions unique to Central Florida including a "cluster-buster" proposal to limit the number of sex offenders who can live in an apartment complex or mobile-home park.

Another idea likely to be discussed Tuesday is a measure aimed at stopping sex offenders from traveling through a "safety zone" around schools, day-care centers, parks and playgrounds unless they have permission or could prove a specified purpose.

"I want to take steps to ensure Lake County does not become a haven or destination for people who can't find any other place to live," Commissioner Leslie Campione said.

The broad options come seven weeks after a Tampa woman suggested the Sorrento area — and possibly areas of Seminole or Orange counties — might be a place where she could create a special neighborhood for sex offenders. Barbara Farris, who has linked herself to a for-profit venture called "Project H4O," wants to establish a community that offers housing, programming, transportation and other services to paroled sex offenders.

Farris said her plan for east Lake collapsed because of an uproar that included picketing, an Internet petition drive and a public meeting that drew 500 people to Sorrento Elementary School. But in e-mails to the Orlando Sentinel, she said she was "still developing housing for offenders." She didn't reveal specific plans or communities but added, "We are moving forward in South Fl, Central Fl and other states."

Campione said rural communities are especially vulnerable to sex-offender clusters as the remote neighborhoods lack day-care centers, schools, parks, and playgrounds, which benefit from municipal and county ordinances forbidding offenders from living no closer than 2,500 feet.

But Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, an organization that opposes sex-offender residency restrictions as counter-productive to protecting the community, said the measures which Lake is weighing are fruitless.

"None of these things will make kids safer," said Colletta, who predicted the county will be sued if the measures are enacted.

Campione shrugged off the possibility of civil-liberty lawsuits.

"I'd prefer to err on the side of protecting the citizens of Lake County," she said.

According to a memo from Lake County Attorney Sandy Minkoff, Seminole County has "safety zones" around schools, day-care centers and parks, while Hillsborough County's zones surround arcades and zoos, as well.

Hillsborough also forbids sex offenders from comprising more than 10 percent of the tenants of an apartment complex or mobile-home park, an ordinance aimed at preventing groups of offenders from living together.

Campione said Lake may try to draft an ordinance that would apply to a residential subdivision.

High-density, sex-offender clusters and homelessness are unintended but predictable consequences of residency restrictions, which have not been proven to be an effective deterrent, said Jill Levenson, an associate professor of psychology at Lynn University in Boca Raton an authority on sex-offender restrictions.

"What do we expect?" Levenson asked. "Where do we think they are going to live?"

She said many rules restricting sex-offenders are based on misconceptions and fear rather than fact. For instance, she said, children are more likely to be sexually abused by a relative or friend than by a stranger.

She said local ordinances that prevent offenders from loitering in areas where children gather make more sense if only as "risk-management" tools.

"There may very well be certain sex offenders who shouldn't be in our parks, but that [conclusion] should be drawn from a careful assessment of an offender's history and needs," she said. ..Source.. by Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel

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