By Frank Mand
Committee report decries myths, misconceptions, Constitutional dangers
PLYMOUTH - Unsubstantiated myths, outright misconceptions and “fraught with constitutional complications.” That sums up the conclusions of a committee that was created to review a proposal that Plymouth establish residential restrictions for registered sex offenders.
The Committee to Consider a Sexual Offender Bylaw, a subcommittee of Town Meeting precinct chairs, was initially formed at the end of 2009, following the defeat of an article that argued for new residency and loitering regulations for sex offenders living in Plymouth.
Among the rationales put forth by the regulations’ proponents was that, in light of similar regulations in other communities, Plymouth needed to act to protect itself from becoming a refuge for sex offenders fleeing those other towns.
It was also argued that new restrictions, such as the anti-loitering provision that would apply to all convicted offenders, were needed in order to keep them from spending too much time around playgrounds, school yards and other areas where potential victims might be located.
The report of the committee, submitted to the Board of Selectman this week by Precinct 4 Town Meeting Rep. John Hammond II, confronted all of those arguments head on.
A committee member collected the existing bylaws and ordinances affecting sexual offenders from a number of other Massachusetts municipalities. Statistical studies that looked at the relationship between repeat offenders and residency were gathered and scrutinized. The committee also conducted interviews with Plymouth Police Chief Michael Botieri, the chief probation officer of Plymouth Superior Court, John Healey, and local experts Debra and John Baker
The data they collected, the report says, “were astonishingly uniform in finding that residency had no relationship to offenses, that convicted sex offenders did not re-offend in the neighborhoods where they lived and, indeed, that most convicted sexual offenders did not re-offend, contrary to the general myth.”
Chief Botieri told the committee that his officers visit Level 3 sex offenders three times as often as the state recommends and that, in his opinion, “these visits are an effective control mechanism.”
The Bakers – she is a licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in the treatment of sex offenders, and he is the retired administrator of the Massachusetts Sexual Offender Classification Board – offered the opinion that a residency restriction would not be helpful, and that Plymouth is, itself, not attractive to sex offenders.
As of late 2010, there were only four Level 3 offenders living in Plymouth, the committee determined, and of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts only 11 have residency restrictions (and none of those are immediate neighbors).
“Plymouth is not in danger of attracting convicted offenders,” the committee’s report states, quite bluntly.
It was noted that, at least at the time the report was being put together (October 2010), there were only three Level 3 offenders living in Plymouth.
“The bulletin board (in the entryway of Town Hall) is misleading,” Hammond said. “I don’t know if any of the names and photos of offenders there have ever been taken down.”
The reports also say that while there has been little, if any, research on the effects of anti-loitering legislation on offenders, “there was no information in their experience or research to suggest that a blanket anti-loitering provision would be effective in protecting victims or curbing recidivism.”
The report also reported that Botieri told the committee “stopping unknown persons based upon a third-party complaint as to their criminal history as a sex offender would be easily challengeable.”
Botieri said that enforcing such a loitering bylaw would be unwieldy and would, the report notes, “lead more often than not to confrontations that either get out of hand or were legally indefensible.”
“Unlike offenders that were known to police through the registration system or court probation – for whom a threshold stop to inquire would be easily justified even without a bylaw,” the report detailed, “stopping unknown persons based on a third-party complaint…would be easily challengeable on fourth amendment grounds.”
After stating the report’s conclusion, which was obvious at that point, Hammond added a personal note.
“I am a social worker by profession,” he told selectman, “and I have worked on both sides of this issue, victims and perpetrators. I feel it would be much more effective if we focused on educating the public on how to protect your children, and what they should know to protect themselves.”
This proposed bylaw, Hammond said, might have given people false comfort, but it wouldn’t have accomplished anything.
Selectman Serge Harnais praised the committee for its effort and research, noting that the original article that had been proposed to Town Meeting “didn’t have the benefit of the expertise that this report contains.”
The board then voted unanimously to accept the report, as written.