Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Towns should not push sex offenders too far

A thoughtful editorial out of New Jersey's "Home News Tribune":

Maureen Kanka, the mother of the murdered girl who inspired Megan's Law, put it clearly and succinctly last week when asked about the rash of new municipal laws that strictly limit where convicted pedophiles can reside. "I think what these municipalities are doing is letting government know that we don't want sex offenders out on the street, period," Kanka said.

Who can disagree? Given the choice, there are few if any among us who would opt to have a sex offender in our midst, or frankly anywhere our children, grandchildren or friends' children might gather. There is a reason dozens of towns in the state have adopted so-called "pedophile-free" zones. There also is a reason the state has gone to extraordinary lengths to restrict the rights of convicted sex offenders, including a law that allows it to keep the worst behind bars indefinitely.

Still, there are limits to what a government can and ought to do, and last week the state took a step toward reigning in the marauding municipalities.

It sued a South Jersey community that seeks not only to prevent convicted offenders from moving within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, libraries, churches and parks, but also intends to make offenders who already live in those areas leave. The state has sued on behalf of a 76-year-old man with a mentally-ill wife, who for more than 35 years as lived about 2,100 feet from a lake where children sometimes swim. He was convicted in 2000 of abusing three young children, including two grandchildren who lived with him. The municipality says the man must move despite the fact that he is in poor health and of limited means: He and his wife live on a $1,200 monthly Social Security check.

Besides the question of whether we want to live in a society in which a municipality has the right to force a man to move from his longtime home after he has served his sentence and after a state authority has judged him fit enough to return to his residence, residents also need to ask whether the law makes sense. Experts warn that disrupting the lives of sex offenders is dangerous, since stress often contributes to their problems, but it doesn't take a psychologist to figure out that a community, and society as a whole, might be better off with a stable sex offender living near a lake than an angry, bitter, desperate one living 500 feet or so farther away.

In filing its suit, the state Public Defender's Office noted that Megan's Law already gives state parole officers the right to prohibit where sex offenders can live. Surely, if any government agency deserves the right to make a decision on behalf of the public, it ought to be an agency with some expertise and some perspective on the subject and the person involved.

Without that expertise and that dispassionate assessment, the local law becomes nothing more than exclusionary zoning, a race to push pedophiles out of "decent" places and into some sort of ghettos. Witch hunts are still witch hunts, even if those being hunted are hardly sympathetic. The municipalities ought to be stopped.

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