Monday, March 17, 2008

Sex offenders have to keep their distance

County won’t allow those convicted of sex crimes to move closer to schools, day care facilities

By Vanessa Fultz, Democrat Reporter

The county commission voted unanimously Tuesday not to modify an ordinance governing how close sex offenders and predators may live in relation to children.

The vote came in response to a request from two counselors that the ordinance be abolished or adjusted. The ordinance bars sexual offenders and predators from living within 2,500 feet of schools, day care centers, parks, playgrounds, bus stops and public libraries.

Paula Moser and Alvin Butler, counselors with the ITM Group, a private counseling center based in Gainesville and Lake City, came to speak to the board about residency restrictions and the effect they have on sex offenders in Suwannee County. Moser and Butler treat offenders in this area.

“The community feels comforted by these restrictions, but research shows there is no correlation between residency restrictions and reducing sex offenses against children,” Moser said.

Moser added that such restrictions are counter-productive because offenders are isolated and are at a distance from the social support necessary to transition back into the community.

“Many offenders are unable to find any place to live in Suwannee County because of the 1,496 school bus stops,” she said, noting this number includes designated bus stops as well as house-to-house stops.

Moser said Columbia County stopped limiting where offenders could live in relation to bus stops because the rule left sex offenders with no place to live.

Moser suggested the ordinance was unnecessary because offenders already face restrictions prohibiting them from residing within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks and playgrounds.

“Even with no ordinance at all sex offenders still have residency restrictions that are closely monitored by their probation officers,” she said.

Moser also suggested adjusting the ordinance by eliminating school bus stops from the restrictions and making restrictions apply only to offenders whose victims were children rather than teenagers.

“I come from law enforcement all my life,” said Commissioner Billy Maxwell, a former Suwannee County sheriff’s deputy. “They [sex offenders] do not rehabilitate. I will never be for changing it.”

Commissioner Ivie Fowler agreed.

“Until the sheriff comes back and says, ‘Board, will you please change this,’ I’m probably not going to be for change,” Fowler said.

“The recidivism rate for sex offenders, all sex offenders, is less than for any other group of offenders in the state or in the nation,” Butler said.

Sheriff Tony Cameron disagreed.

“The comments were very eloquently stated, but the facts are, this is nothing but dirt,” he said. “We’re going to change it so they can come back into our county and molest our children and our grandchildren, and the men and women of this county continue to suffer, that’s something that we can’t tolerate.”

Cameron said Columbia County loosened its restrictions because commissioners hadn’t furnished adequate law enforcement personnel to monitor the ordinance.

“We have an officer that makes sure that they live where they’re supposed to,” he said.

Moser said the ordinance leaves offenders with no place to live once they’re let out of jail.

“Some of the offenders have moved to Columbia County and are living together in motels and are away from their families and other support systems,” she said.

Cameron said Wednesday that loosening ordinances governing residency restrictions causes an influx of offenders to gather in one area.

“We don’t want to be a haven for them,” Cameron said.

There were 104 registered sex offenders in Suwannee County as of Wednesday (excluding those housed at the county jail), but that number can change daily, because some offenders leave the area or flee supervision.

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