October 4, 2015

Outcasts: Level III sex offenders in R.I. can't live within 1,000 ft. of schools

10-4-2015 Rhode Island:

The General Assembly tripled the distance this summer. Experts say that move could backfire.

PROVIDENCE -- Most of them knew what was coming, but the words still left them shocked and dismayed.

Dozens of Providence men, all convicted of sex crimes, learned Wednesday from the Providence police that they had 30 days to find a new place to live.

For the most part, they'd lived quietly in the neighborhoods for years, checked on by probation officers and police who knew them by name.

They begged for more time.

The law won't allow it, the police said.

"The state has got to stop punishing us!" said Joseph Sorel, an Army veteran convicted of molesting children who has to move from Olneyville Square. "We've paid for our crimes. What's next?"

Since 2008, all convicted sex offenders in Rhode Island have been banned from living within 300 feet of public or private school property. In June, the General Assembly expanded that ban to 1,000 feet for Level III sex offenders, those deemed most likely to re-offend. A map of Providence built by The Journal shows just a few slivers of the city left open to offenders.

Remarkably, law enforcers, civil-rights advocates, supporters of victims of sexual assault and experts who study sex-offender management say the expanded ban could actually decrease public safety by forcing offenders to move frequently or become homeless, destabilizing their lives.

Jill S. Levenson, an associate professor of social work at Barry University in Miami and an expert on the impact of laws like Rhode Island's 1,000-foot ban, said there's no evidence that residence-restriction laws improve public safety.

"The laws are passed with good intentions. It seems like it makes sense: if they're not living close to where children are, they'll have less likelihood to form a relationship and be tempted," said Levenson,

"The irony is," she said, "in some ways it exacerbates factors that contribute to risk."

Rhode Island's 1,000-foot law is the work of Joseph M. McNamara, a Warwick state representative who chairs the state Democratic Party and the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee. Warwick Democrat Sen. Michael McCaffrey sponsored the companion bill in the Senate.

McNamara, who drove the amendment through the General Assembly, said he did so because "parents were panicking" when a sex offender moved into an apartment building 400 feet from a Warwick elementary school -- and another moved into McNamara's neighborhood in a home 800 feet from an elementary school.

Both offenders were complying with state law, but McNamara felt they were too close for comfort. "Being a retired school administrator, when you have a school community in a panic over these situations and children who believe they are going to an area that is insecure, it's not conducive to education."

Thirty states including Rhode Island have residency restrictions on sex offenders, with some ranging up to 2,500 feet from schools, parks and playgrounds. I thought 1,000 feet was reasonable. It's three football fields," he said. Those who violate McNamara's law face up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The Department of Correction's Sex Offender Board of Review and the Sex Offender Community Notification Unit evaluates the sex offenders and determines their levels before they are released. The levels -- I, II and III -- are based on a felon's likelihood to re-offend, with Level III being the most likely.

the new law, the 300-foot ban still applies to Level I and II offenders.

When he introduced his bill to the House Judiciary Committee in April, McNamara told the other members that it was "very simple, cut and dry."

Richard Ferruccio, president of the R.I. Brotherhood of Correction Officers, also voiced support for the bill, saying it would create a "buffer zone" between offenders and schools. "We think families shouldn't have to live in fear of crime in their communities," he said. "School areas should be safe zones.

No one else supported the bill. The Rhode Island Public Defenders Office, The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, and a case manager who works with the homeless all raised concerns that the legislation would send offenders into shelters or the streets. ..Continued.. by Amanda Milkovits

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