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Too close for comfort

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Posted: Saturday, March 18, 2006 4:55 am | Updated: 2:22 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Restrictions on where child molesters and other sex offenders can live are on the rise nationwide, supported by a recent federal court decision that upholds modern-day banishments.

Efforts to enact more restrictions statewide failed in the Arizona Legislature this year, but lawmakers say the issue is likely to come back in 2007.

Phoenix, meanwhile, is studying whether to prevent sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and day care centers — a move that some fear may drive sex offenders into nearby cities that don’t have such rules.

Critics say the restrictions are unconstitutional and inflict more punishment on people who have served their sentences, and lull people into a false sense of security.

Despite those concerns, some local residents and legislators feel convicted sex offenders simply don’t belong near schools or other places children frequent.

“It exposes children to danger on a regular basis,” said Francine Hribar, whose two grandchildren, ages 5 and 7, attend North Ranch Elementary School in Scottsdale. “If a sex offender wishes to grab a child, they have the perfect opportunity.”

Records show that a high-risk child molester lives about 1,200 feet from the school, 16406 N. 61st Place.

Arizona law says sex offenders can’t live within 440 feet of a school.

At the Heritage Academy in Mesa, eight moderate- and highrisk offenders live within 1,000 feet of the campus — six of whom have been convicted of crimes against minors.

Tribune research shows that of 249 verified sex offenders registered on the Arizona Sex Offender database in the newspaper’s readership area, nearly 20 percent live within 1,000 feet of a public, private or charter school. Roughly 60 percent of offenders in the community is higher than shown on the state’s database, because the state only releases public information about intermediate- and high-risk sex offenders convicted after 1996.

More than 11,000 registered sex offenders live in Arizona, but only about 2,700 of them appear on the state’s online sex offender registry,

www.azsexoffender.org.

LAWS VARY

Laws prohibiting sex offenders from living near schools have been increasing in popularity since Alabama began the trend in 1996.

Since then at least 14 states, including Arizona, have passed restrictions.

Compared with the other 14 states, Arizona is fairly tame, limiting sex offenders on probation to no closer than 440 feet from schools.

Sen. Dean Martin, RPhoenix, who wrote the current law, which passed in 2002, also headed up efforts to expand the rule earlier this year.

His proposal would have restricted offenders on probation from residing within 1,320 feet of a school, public playground or swimming pool.

The bill died in committee, but Martin said he plans to keep pushing the issue.

“It’s very important to keep these individuals away from what tempts them to do wrong,” he said.

“We want to make sure parents can send their kids to school without worrying.”

One of the most restrictive laws is in Iowa, which in 2002 banned any convicted sex offender — on probation or not — from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care facility.

That law triggered cities and towns in the state to add parks, swimming pools and bus stops to the list of offlimits areas, sending offenders scrambling for suitable dwellings.

The law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, and a federal judge ruled it was unconstitutional.

But that ruling was overturned on appeal, and the battle seemed to end late last year after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the issue.

Phoenix officials are now considering expanding the buffer zones with an ordinance modeled after the Iowa law.

“It’s a public policy issue that many people are concerned about,” Phoenix City Attorney Gary Verburg said. “There’s always concern when the welfare of children are at stake.”

Verburg said because similar policies have been upheld in other jurisdictions, Phoenix has the “legal authority” to pass such restrictions. Officials said they should reach a decision soon.

If such restrictions are passed, however, they should be passed universally, rather than in specific cities, said Rich Crandall, a Mesa Unified School District board member.

Otherwise, Phoenix sex offenders could end up flooding to places with lesser restrictions, like Mesa, he said.

The New York Times reported last week that a Nebraska town across the border from Iowa had 28 sex offenders move in since last fall.

EFFECTIVENESS DEBATED

Crandall, who is also the father of seven children, said he wouldn’t want a parent to believe moving sex offenders out of a community would mean their children are safe.

“A sex offender doesn’t have to live by a school to cause a problem,” he said. Still, he supports the idea of imposing a sex offender buffer zone.

“We have restrictions for bars, adult bookstores and liquor stores being near schools and they don’t pose near the threat a sex offender does,” he said.

One study released last year in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology concluded that residence restrictions make no positive impact and may actually make communities more prone to crimes committed by sex offenders.

Such laws are also “truly unfair” to people who have done their time for their crimes, said Melody Dunlap of Phoenix, a sex offender rights advocate.

“What the public doesn’t understand is that not all sex offenders are the same,” Dunlap said.

“They’re not all dangerous.”

She said she thinks residency restriction laws are unconstitutional.

“A lot of these people have families,” she said. “Where are they supposed to go?”

Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, has one answer: “As far as I’m concerned, they should remain in prison.”

Knaperek wrote a bill this year that would have required dangerous child molesters to remain on lifetime probation and also be tracked for the rest of their lives with Global Positioning System equipment.

She said her bill, which also failed to pass, was not “extreme” enough.

As part of the 1996 Megan’s Law, local police typically distribute fliers to homes and schools when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

But the system is not designed to alert everyone, everywhere about the offender, nor inform all parents whose children attend a particular school.

In Scottsdale, police fliers about sex offenders are posted near the principal’s office, visible to the staff and any parents who happen to stop by.

“We leave it up for a couple of weeks and then we take it down,” said Nan Cavin, the principal’s assistant at North Ranch Elementary School. “Most of the parents are already aware of it.”

But not all parents.

Sumilia Madhavan said she had no idea her 6-year-old daughter attends school so close to a convicted child molester.

“It scares me,” she said. “I’d rather they not be near our children.”

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