Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bill limits sex offenders

Monday, March 10th, 2008

BOISE — Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have unanimously approved a bill limiting the number of registered sex offenders permitted to live in the same residence.

House Bill 417 is intended to permit no more than two registered sex offenders to live together by amending state land use and planning regulations. It’s aimed at concerns about group homes with a high concentration of sex offenders going into residential neighborhoods.

About the bill

Lawmakers say House Bill 417 would:

• Set a limit of two registered adult sex offenders in a residential dwelling unit;

• Provides for a judicial bypass in limited circumstances to exceed that limit;

• Give cities and counties authority to exceed the limit by ordinance to allow and regulate group residence homes for sex offenders;

• Provide a misdemeanor penalty for violation, consistent with other statutes restricting sex offenders;

• Require Department of Correction approval for a group home residence still supervising the offender;

• Grandfather current residence situations, while requiring compliance with ordinances of cities and counties when established.

Several provisions for local government to bypass the limit are built into the bill.

Supporters say the measure would “balance the need for registered adult sex offenders to have housing available to them with concerns of citizens over sex offender group homes being established in residential neighborhoods.”

Passed by the House 68-0 and the Senate 32-0, the bill now only needs Gov. Butch Otter’s signature to become law.

Current residential situations wouldn’t be affected by the new restrictions.

“I think everyone is concerned that we have transition housing available — the debate is that that is important, but it is also important for people to feel secure in their neighborhoods,” Senate floor co-sponsor Curt McKenzie of Nampa said.

Numerous halfway houses for sex offenders and former felons have located throughout the Treasure Valley in recent months. Legislators say difficulties have arisen among city and county governments in interpreting the federal Fair Housing Act that governs the homes’ regulation.

Some transition home operators have held that sex offenders are a protected class of disabled persons under the federal law.

But lawmakers say in their proposal that, according to the U.S. Department of Justice “persons convicted for illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance, sex offenders, and juvenile offenders are not considered disabled under the Fair Housing Act, by virtue of that status.”

HB 417 as well as the Senate-passed House Bill 465 could use that exemption to the FHA to give Idaho cities more authority to regulate halfway houses that previously could be established with little notice or need for approval.

“People were very upset,” McKenzie said of his constituents. Several neighborhood meetings concerning transition houses in Nampa conveyed little local support for those placed in residential areas without notice, particularly near schools.

Senate bill co-sponsor Patti Anne Lodge of Canyon County said there was debate in the Senate “centered around the fact that if we didn't have the transitional homes more people would pop out in prison, stay in prison longer and so therefore would cost the taxpayers more.”

“I don’t agree with that because we can still have transitional homes, we can have them in commercial areas, like the Rev. Bill Roscoe. His programs are tremendous,” Lodge said.

Rev. Bill Roscoe is executive director of the Boise Rescue Mission. The mission offers transitional housing for those emerging from its substance-abuse treatment program. In Nampa, the residential units are adjacent to the Lighthouse Rescue Mission on Nampa-Caldwell Boulevard.

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