Four months after first revealing he was pursuing a new local law for convicted sex offenders, Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s proposal for child safety zones will be heard by the City Council Thursday night.
Bettencourt submitted a draft form of the proposal to the council on Oct. 4, and if approved, would in fact be an amendment to existing city codes.
The proposal targets “child sex offenders” and “child safety zones.” The goal of the law is to make it “unlawful for a child sex offender to be present in any child safety zone,” reads the draft language.
There is no state law in Massachusetts or in most other states restricting the activities of convicted sex offenders -- neither do most cities and towns have such local laws. Such restrictions are typically dealt with in court by a judge as part of sentencing.
Bettencourt says his greatest concern here is for the "health and safety" of the city's children.
He expects a legal challenge will be forthcoming from the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, which has appealed many other communities' attempts to enact local laws, arguing the restrictions infringe on individual rights.
"If they [the ACLU] challenge it, they challenge it," Bettencourt said in a previous interview.
Creating safety zones and other definitions
Child safety zones, as outlined in the proposed ordinance, include parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, libraries, schools, daycares, youth centers, video arcades, bathing beaches, swimming pools, gyms, sports fields or sports facilities, along with parking areas and land adjacent to those locations and school or camp bus stops under the city’s jurisdiction or leased by the city for recreational purposes.
The ordinance differs from proposals in other Massachusetts communities – most notably in Lynn – by not containing language specifying where a child sex offender can live in the city or any measurable proximity to the locations above, as long as it’s not next-door.
Child sex offenders would be those Level 2 or 3 offenders whose victims were children under 16, but also include anyone who has not been classified yet by the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board and who was also convicted of such charges as indecent assault and battery of a child, forced rape of a child, assault with intent to commit rape, kidnapping a child, prostitution of a child, child pornography, etc.
The scope likewise includes those deemed sexually dangerous by the courts and whose victim was a child.
Sex offenders are classified by the board as Level 1, 2 or 3, with the last being for the most serious offenses. Current state law requires Level 2 and 3 offenders to register with the police and those individuals' names, addresses and pictures are then made available to the public.
There are currently 12 registered Level 3 offenders in Peabody.
Some exceptions to the rule
The proposed law does allow for several exceptions to the local prohibition, such as granting an exemption to anyone whose name has been removed from the state registry or other state system where offenses occurred, or who has been reclassified down to a Level 1 offender.
Affected individuals would still be able to attend religious services, but only during hours of worship or programs open to the public and would have to abstain from any religious education programs involving anyone under 18.
Where a child sex offender’s own child is concerned, he or she would be allowed in cases where his or her presence as a parent was required, and only during the specific hours of whatever the activity was. In instances, where the person was a student at a school, his or her presence would be allowed only during required school hours or activities.
Offenders would also be allowed to vote in their normal precincts, and then finally, they would be able to visit a courthouse, City Hall or other government office to transact business, or attend a public meeting, but then vacate the premises immediately afterward.
Enforcement and fines
All child sex offenders in the city would be notified of the new rules by the Police Department, although failure to receive written notice could not be used as a defense for violation of the law. A map of child safety zones would be on file with the Community Development Department, police and the City Clerk’s office, as well as posted at all public buildings and on the city’s website.
Enforcement would rest with the police and allow for fines in addition to criminal charges, if offenders refuse to comply with police orders to vacate the premises. A first violation would carry a fine up to $150 and succeeding violations would be up to $300 each.
The City Council's Legal Affairs Subcommittee, which is chaired by Anne Manning-Martin, is scheduled to review the proposal Thursday, starting at 6:30 p.m. in Wiggin Auditorium at City Hall. Depending on the outcome there, the full council may take a vote later in the evening to adopt the new ordinance.