“Basically, I want to send the message, ‘We don’t want you here.’”
Selectman Butch Machado of Plymouth, Massachusetts was referring to a rather unpopular group of people: registered sex offenders.
In March 2009, Butch encouraged his fellow Board of Selectmen members to adopt a local ordinance that would prohibit sex offenders from establishing residency in specified areas of Plymouth. Plymouth does not have an ordinance that provides the town with the authority to regulate where certain sex offenders are allowed to live. He explained that “the sole purpose of the by-law is to protect the most vulnerable members of society: the women, the children, and the elderly.”
The other four selectmen readily agreed that Plymouth should get something on the books, so Kopelman & Page, the town’s contracted Law firm, drafted a new bylaw for Plymouth entitled “Sex Offender Residency Restrictions.” The law would forbid sex offenders classified as level 3 offenders and considered high risk to reoffend, from establishing permanent residencies within one half-mile of the outermost property line of any school, daycare center, park and recreation facility, or elderly housing facility. If a sex offender were found to be in violation of this law he or she would be notified by local law enforcement that he must move within 30 days. If the offender did not move after this warning he would be fined $300 dollars and his landlord, parole officer and/or probation officer, and Massachusetts’ Sex Offender Registry Board would all be notified of his violation.
For a town, Plymouth is huge. They have the largest expanse of land out of all of the municipalities in the Commonwealth. Located on the bicep of Cape Cod, their 134 square miles of land blankets the entire western shore of the bay. Despite their abundance of space, the 86 half-mile buffer-zones that would be drawn around fourteen schools, fifteen daycare centers, fifteen elderly housing complexes, and forty-two park and recreation facilities would not leave much in the way of housing for sex offenders. In fact, any level 3 sex offender who would be looking to move to Plymouth after the law were instated would find that 80% of the town was off limits. A map of the town that depicts these residency restrictions marks the forbidden zones in red ink. It resembles an invasive rash or a bloodied rag; however, sex offenders are more likely to view that map as a message that Plymouth will not take kindly to their presence.
A sex offender is someone who is convicted of a crime that is in some respect sexual. The classification ‘sex offender’ can be considered an umbrella term in that it covers a broad spectrum of sex crimes. For example, convictions of downloading child pornography, open and gross lewdness, statutory rape, child molestation, and rape with force will all earn a person the label ‘sex offender.’
The Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB) attempts (as does every other state SORB) to more specifically categorize sex offenders by sorting them into three different levels. The level of a sex offender suggests how great of a risk he poses to society and, in turn, what amount of his private information the state believes the public is entitled to. A level 1 sex offender is considered a non-threat to society, so none of his or her personal information is provided to the public. If the state labels a sex offender as a level 3, on the other hand, he or she is believed to be at high risk to reoffend and public safety is addressed by the active dissemination of these offenders’ information.
Towns and cities within the Commonwealth must carry out a level 3 community notification plan where the local police provide residents who might encounter these offenders with an offender’s name, home address, work address, sex offense conviction(s), age, sex, race, height, weight, eye color, hair color, and a photograph. Residents of Massachusetts can access this information of every level 3 sex offender in the state via the Commonwealth’s SORB website.
Plymouth Police Chief Michael Botieri regularly checks up on the town’s 10 level 3 offenders. This way, he has a better idea of how their lives are going on an individual basis and how they are functioning within the greater Plymouth community. He explained to Town Meeting that while the Commonwealth’s SORB suggests that he check up on level 3 offenders two times a year, he currently pays them visits every three months and plans to step it up to every other month in the near future. As for the two homeless offenders, the SORB requires them to check in with the Chief every 45 days. He says that they have been successful in doing this.
Plymouth’s desire for a residency restriction law did not arise because Plymouth’s method of managing their sex offenders has failed to address some real, discernable problem surrounding their presence. Chief Botieri’s “tracking system” has been successful, and there has been no sudden rise of sex crime in Plymouth.
Across the nation, residency restriction laws for sex offenders have become popular modes for enhancing communities’ senses of control over their own safety. According the Council of State Governments, at least 24 states and hundreds of municipalities have enacted various forms of these laws since they first started appearing in 2001. Massachusetts does not have a statewide policy; however, 20 out of the 351 municipalities in the Commonwealth have legislated residency restrictions for sex offenders. If Plymouth adopts a residency restriction law with a half-mile buffer zone, their law will become the strictest of its kind in Massachusetts.
While deliberating over this proposed bylaw, Plymouth’s Advisory and Finance Committee and Town Meeting Members invited Debra Baker to offer her expert opinion. She has worked with sex offenders for over 25 years and for the past 10 has been in private practice in Plymouth. The practice is called Network Counseling, and she works with groups of sex offenders of all levels who are on probation or parole and in court-ordered counseling.
Debra told the Advisory and Finance Committee that sex offender residency restrictions are completely ineffective.
These laws are generally geared towards increasing the safety of children. Debra explained how in 93% of all reported incidences of sexual abuse against a child the victims knew their assailants. This means that nearly 93% of sex offenses against children occur within either the victim’s home or the offender’s home, which restriction zones around places where children congregate cannot prevent.
Also, recidivism rates for sex offenders, or the rates at which sex offenders recommit sex crimes, are not as high as the general public perceives them to be. Debra said that only around 13% of all sex offenders recommit sexual offenses. In her own experience, for the past 10 years, she has had a caseload of around 60 sex offender parolees. In all of this time, only two of her clients have recommitted their offenses.
Selectman Butch Machado was fond of reiterating the popular kid-in-a-candy-store analogies to reason why residency restrictions for sex offenders would effectively address public safety.
“You don’t let a drug addict work in a pharmacy, so why would you let a level 3 sex offender live near a school?”
Unfortunately, Butch’s well-intended logic is contributing to the larger pool of misinformation surrounding sex offenders.
“I want the public to think it through,” Debra said, “not blindly but into a political trend.”
After Debra informed the Advisory and Finance Committee that residency restriction laws are ineffective in terms of improving public safety, she explained that the law would also have unintended results that would ultimately produce damaging effects on the community.
When level 3 sex offenders are released back into society after spending time in confinement they need to return home to their support networks for both financial and rehabilitative purposes. If a level 3 sex offender tries to return to Plymouth after the town has enacted these residency restrictions, odds are that four out of five times the offender will not be able to legally return to his support network.
Sex offenders who need to return to Plymouth and are provided with no legal living options are likely to do one of two things: Avoid the registries and establish living anyways, or become homeless.
Chief Botieri expressed concern regarding the possibility of the law pushing sex offenders underground to the Advisory and Finance Committee early on in their deliberation process. Currently, all 10 of Plymouth’s level 3 sex offenders are on his radar map since they are all compliant with the rules of the SORB. If Plymouth enacts the law and incoming level 3 offenders are forced to subvert the registries in order to stay in town, the Chief will have no way of tracking them. Even if the offenders end up registering as homeless, local law enforcement will have to spend more of their energy and resources ensuring that their situations are under control.
Debra explained to the Plymouth officials that it is in the community’s best interest that Plymouth not develop sex offender policy that increases offenders’ challenge of maintaining stable living environments because they are more likely to reoffend if they are experiencing instability. A stable living environment includes permanent housing, support from family and/or friends, a job, access to therapy, and a relationship with local law enforcement. Even sex offenders who are living in communities without residency restriction laws struggle to establish and maintain these various forms of stability.
One of Debra’s weekly clients, Dave, lives in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, which is in Plymouth County just two towns south of Plymouth. Dave is somewhere in his forties and has the body of a linebacker who let himself go after retirement. The hair on his head and his chin is grey, and he has an endearing buck-toothed giggle.
Dave molested multiple children, including his stepdaughter and his niece. “After ruining everyone’s life around me,” he explained, he spent 16 years in the Plymouth County Correctional Facility. As a part of his parole agreement, he was chemically castrated, which is a procedure that permanently reduces a man’s libido and ability to be sexually aroused.
Dave was released back into the community as a level 3 sex offender and because he had no money his only living option was with his parents. Luckily, this town did not have residency restrictions for sex offenders, so Dave was able to begin his life outside of jail in a stable living environment. He said that it was tough at first having all of his neighbors know that he was a level 3 offender, “but that situation got better as they got to know me,” he explained.
Dave has had a very difficult time finding a job. First, he interviewed twice with Mastria Auto Group and because of his skilled experience in detailing cars, they wanted to make him their new detailer. Then they ran his background check. They had to turn him down since they did not want to have a level 3 sex offender attached to their business.
He experienced this rejection two or three more times, but then his luck took a turn for the better. His best friend from childhood connected him to another job opportunity in the automotive detailing business. The company knew that he was a convict on parole and were okay with it, so Dave started working right away sweeping floors and cleaning up cars. Doing what he was good at doing and the prospect of a steady job provided him with a lot of happiness. After two and a half weeks of working for them, however, they found out that his crimes were sexual offenses against children. They decided to let him go.
“I drove down Route 6 crying because I was that heartbroken,” he said.
Debra said that all of these jobs would have been perfect for Dave since there is no danger of him harming a child while he is working in an auto shop. One of her strategies as a counselor is to identify each sex offender’s “risk situation.” Then, law enforcement, the counselor, and the offender can all work together and take measures to prevent the offender from ending up in circumstances where he or she is at risk to reoffend.
Debra’s parolees made it apparent that in addition to their court-ordered management, the fact that the term ‘sex offender’ carries so much social stigma results in the publics’ unofficial practices of regulating sex offenders. Dave is without a job because most employers do not want child molesters associated with their businesses, not because there is any kind of law in Plymouth County that regulates where sex offenders can work.
Despite this knowledge that residency restrictions for sex offenders are ineffective and even damaging, Plymouth officials are still working to develop a sex offender residency restriction law. Butch, among other Town Meeting Members, fear that the town’s failure to adopt such a policy will result in sex offenders migrating to Plymouth en masse – that the town will become a “dumping ground” for sex offenders. “We don’t want to encourage sex offenders to come to Plymouth by having nothing,” said Randolph Parker Junior, “ – to sit down at the computer, run a search of local bylaws, and find that there is nothing on the books, so by default, let’s go to Plymouth.”