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BY MONICA VON DOBENECK
Several studies have shown that laws restricting where convicted sex offenders can live don't make children safer.
People fear sexual of fenders, especially any whose offense is directed at children.
So it's maybe understandable to see why Middletown has joined a list of Pennsylvania communities that restrict where convicted sex offenders can live. The problem is that several studies seem to show such laws don't make children safer.
Lauren Taylor is executive director of the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, which evaluates everyone accused of a sex crime to determine their risk to society. Taylor is no apologist for sex offenders and would not dictate to municipalities. But she visits municipalities considering such laws at their invitation to arm them with the facts she has gathered.
"Research shows there is no correlation between residency restrictions and reducing sex offenses against children or improving the safety of children," Taylor said.
"If you're going to do it, make an informed decision instead of letting emotions lead you to a decision that is meaningless in the goal you are trying to reach," she said.
Rodney Horton, president of Middletown Borough Council, said he has read those studies and understands the argument. But he believes Middletown's law, which keeps offenders 500 feet from places children gather, sends a message. The borough passed its law on Tuesday. It's like the laws some cities pass requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns, even though those laws are unlikely to stop gun violence, he said.
"We're sending a message that sex crime, especially toward children, is a major issue," he said. "When a community has endured many offenses like Middletown has, you can't sit idly by."
He particularly referred to the case of Charles Koons, 39, who is charged with molesting 13 boys ages 4 to 14 between 2002 and 2008.
Some argue that residency restrictions make people less safe, not more.
A study by the Iowa Department of Public Safety showed that the number of offenders unaccounted for doubled after a residency restriction law went into effect. Studies in Colorado, California and Minnesota showed residency restrictions have no effect on the chance that someone convicted of a sex crime might be arrested again.
State Police Lt. Douglas Grimes, who is in charge of Pennsylvania's Megan's Law Web site, said police officers "strive to know where the threats are," which becomes harder if sex offenders are forced to move or become homeless.
Probation officers can restrict where sex offenders live, but they base decisions on individual circumstances, he said.
Offenders who are in psychological treatment are nearly half as likely to offend again, according to the Center for Sex Offender Management. Residency restrictions can keep them from the family, employment and treatment that makes them less likely to break the law.
A federal judge overturned an Allegheny County law, saying it interfered with the state's obligation to try to rehabilitate offenders. His decision is under appeal.
Lemoyne Borough Council has a law that makes it unlawful for sexual offenders to live within 500 feet of any school, child care facility, common open space, community center, public park or recreational facility.
Harrisburg officials have considered similar restrictions but have not enacted any ordinances.
It's important not to lump all sex offenders together, Taylor said. Those the assessment board calls sexually violent predators make up only about 2 percent of those on the Megan's Law Web site. Others might be men who had a consensual relationship with a teenager or a single instance of indecent assault with an adult while drunk.
"They run the gamut," she said. "And it's not the ones on the list you need to worry about" because most of the people arrested for sex crimes have no record. Authorities can keep a closer eye on those already on the list, she said.
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