March 31, 2017

Despite research, ND lawmakers OK bill keeping high-risk sex offenders from living near schools

3-31-17 North Dakota:

FARGO – North Dakota’s on track to have its first statewide restriction on where high-risk sex offenders can live, with lawmakers voting almost unanimously for a bill that would prohibit such offenders from residing within 500 feet of a school.

House Bill 1334, which has received little media attention, quietly passed the House in February and the Senate this week. The bill has not yet been sent to Gov. Doug Burgum, who generally does not comment on legislation before it reaches his desk, his spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Thursday, March 30.

Over two-dozen other states have imposed blanket restrictions on where sex offenders can live. But no research has shown that these restrictions prevent sex crimes. Rather, in some cases they’ve led to “loss of housing, loss of support systems, and financial hardship that may aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk,” according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The manager of North Dakota’s sex offender program, who testified against the bill, agrees that such restrictions don’t have the desired effect. “Setting up an imaginary boundary of 500 feet from a school, I think, could provide a false sense of security and that, I think, could be very dangerous,” said Barb Breiland of the state’s parole and probation division.

Breiland said 583 high-risk offenders live in North Dakota communities. It’s unclear how many of them live near schools and would need to move if the bill becomes law on July 1, she said.

Depending on where an area’s schools are located, she said, she thinks the restriction could exclude offenders from entire towns. The Justice Department report said “residence restrictions lead to the displacement and clustering of sex offenders into other areas, particularly rural areas.”

The bill would apply to private and public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as state-licensed preschools. North Dakota has 132 such preschools, including 36 in Fargo and West Fargo, according to the state Department of Human Services.
‘A real uneasy feeling’

In 2009, the North Dakota House defeated a bill that would have made it illegal for sex offenders to live within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers and other areas with children. At the time, law enforcement officers opposed the bill, saying it did not offer the protection it seemed to, while making it harder for offenders to find housing.

Rep. Lisa Meier, the main sponsor of this session’s bill, said no law enforcement officers testified against her legislation, which applies only to offenders deemed a high risk to re-offend and has a smaller buffer zone. “Five hundred feet seems really like a great, you know, place to go with this," she said.

Meier, R-Bismarck, said she submitted the bill after a student and her mother raised concerns about a high-risk offender living near Light of Christ Catholic School and St. Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck. Meier said the offender’s presence put parents and students “on guard a little bit and gave them a real uneasy feeling."

Meier said two students testified in favor of the bill. “They were mainly concerned that a high-risk sex offender's living right across the street, you know, staring at kids all day," she said.

Meier said the offender no longer lives next to the school. Right now, the closest high-risk offender lives in an apartment about three blocks away, roughly 1,250 feet from the school.

The lone dissenting vote against Meier’s bill came from Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, who believes decisions on sex-offender residency restrictions should be left up to local municipalities. ..Continued.. by Archie Ingersoll

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