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Mayor Gains Full Support for Sex Offender Law From City Council

The child sex offender ordinance for Peabody now needs to be publicly advertised by the City Clerk's office before the City Council officially adopts the new law later this month.

The City Council unanimously passed a child sex offender law through committee Thursday night without any objections. The full council then likewise agreed to advertise the new ordinance before taking a vote to officially adopt later this month.

The new ordinance seeks to create "child safety zones" and specifically target convicted Level 2 and 3 child sex offenders in terms of barring them from such designated areas, which would encompass city schools, libraries, parks and other recreational areas.

Mayor Ted Bettencourt appeared before the council Thursday, explaining his rationale for the local ordinance, and was strongly supported by about 25 parents in the audience.

"There is nothing more important we can do...than to protect our children," he said. "What's going to happen is that other cities and towns are going to pass this and those sex offenders are going to go somewhere."

Bettencourt said he sees the law as a proactive effort to protect the community and its children.

Three parents spoke in support of the law, in addition to School Committee member Brandi Carpenter, who informed councilors of the committee's support as well.

"We don't take a false sense of security in this," Carpenter said, speaking as a parent of young children. "But it is a step in the right direction."

"If you guys don't do this, it's going to be terrible for our kids; you need to protect our kids," said Dave Cummings. He noted his own involvement in youth sports and that he witnessed another incident at a city park, following the initial incident this summer that led to Bettencourt taking action.

Jim Guiry likewise said his children play youth sports and that the law gives some sense of security back to parents.

"They [sex offenders] lost their rights to hang around parks and schools," he said.

Bettencourt said there are now more than 40 communities in Massachusetts that have some form of local sex offender laws in place, and his proposal is modeled after the law in New Bedford. That city's ordinance has been in place since 2008 and is not currently facing a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union, although it was challenged at one point, but that suit was eventually dismissed.

The New Bedford law was actually instigated by a case of child rape by a registered sex offender in a public library in January 2008. In response, New Bedford city councilors passed an ordinance barring the most serious sex offenders from newly designated “child safety zones.”

Locally, the city of Lynn also has an ordinance in place, which is being challenged in court on constitutional grounds.

Bettencourt says he isn't worried about whether the ACLU will file suit or not and is confident the proposed ordinance is on sound legal and constitutional footing.

He said that's why it's taken a few months to draft the ordinance. "I want to get this on the books right away, but I want to make sure it's a strong ordinance."

"This is clearly well thought out and well written," said Ward 6 Councilor Barry Sinewitz. "We have to do what we have to do to keep our community safe."

He urged his colleagues to not be fearful of legal challenges to the law in considering whether to approve it. And it turned out that each councilor apparently shared those sentiments, as they all voted to move forward with the law.

Councilor Dave Gravel asked if signs could be posted at "child safety zones" to clearly identify those areas to the public and help prevent any possible confusion on whether a sex offender was found in violation of the ordinance.

Bettencourt said he liked that idea and would consider installing some signs.

Bettencourt first revealed this summer that he was working on an ordinance in the wake of parents notifying him of an incident at Lt. Ross Park in which two sex offenders had shown up there multiple times to collect cans while youth sports games were going on.

The parents said that on the last instance, the men exchanged words with the parents, and police had been called just as many times, but told the concerned parents there was nothing they could do since the men were not in violation of any laws.

The parents, and subsequently Bettencourt, realized there were no state or local laws in place to prohibit sex offenders from gathering in public places.

Jessica O'Hara, one of the parents who initially contacted Bettencourt, told councilors Thursday that the park "is a home away from home for many of us."

She said she and another mother followed the two men upon seeing them for the third time at the park to ensure they did leave after gathering cans. At that point, the "men yelled comments" at the parents, O'Hara said. She later realized both were Level 3 sex offenders.

"You hear people say it [the law] creates a false sense of security, but [the sex offenders] will get fined," O'Hara said.

Bettencourt said after the meeting that he purposefully steered clear of trying to dictate where child sex offenders could live in Peabody or specific proximity to child safety zones, which is what Lynn is being challenged on now.

If those provisions were deemed constitutional by a judge, Bettencourt said, he would seek to add them as well.

He told councilors that in turn if an appeal of Peabody's ordinance is taken and a judge rules against the constitutionality of certain measures, the city will just have to tweak the law to comply.

Some minor tweaking may be done regardless prior to the ordinance coming up for a vote to adopt likely at the council's Oct. 25 session.

Councilor Anne Manning-Martin asked if more specific language could be used to clarify "religious education programs," from which sex offenders were banned, only included those involving children and which were not part of regular worship or Mass services.

Saber Walsh October 12, 2012 at 12:25 PM
THANK YOU, CITY COUNCIL AND MAYOR BETTENCOURT !!!! This is a great direction for our city. If we could get more patrols around the parks during the summer time, we might just be able to get ahead of the "childhood obesity" issue as well as begin pushing the gangs off public property.
BarT October 12, 2012 at 12:39 PM
I don't think these kinds of laws are constitutional and it will only take one ex-offender to sue and have it overturned, at city expense. Former offenders have a recidivism rate of 2-5%. A child is at greater risk of being molested by someone in the family photo album than a stranger. Wake up, read these stories. You're wasting taxpayer money.
Alex Smith October 12, 2012 at 01:28 PM
[“Bettencourt said he sees the law as a proactive effort to protect the community and its children.”] No sir, you are incorrect. This is merely a reactionary response to the most reprehensible beings in your community. This is not about the actual safety of children as you suggest. This is all about you attempting to create your own little comfortable zone within this world. You should also know that no matter how careful you were to protect the letter of this law, this ordinance will not stand up in a court of law to the end. These ordinances are dropping like flies once cases get dealt with. You are standing on a mountain of dung and costing tax payer’s useless dollars. If someone is intent on finding a victim they will proceed with or without a feelgood ordinance.
Mass Children October 12, 2012 at 02:31 PM
Thank you Mayor Bettencourt!! Now we have to pass stronger laws to keep these criminals in prison. Cities and towns would not be burdened with dealing with adopting measuresd to protect the community, if our state got serious and kept these predators in prison where they belong.
Alex Smith October 12, 2012 at 04:55 PM
["THANK YOU, CITY COUNCIL AND MAYOR BETTENCOURT !!!"] ["Thank you Mayor Bettencourt!!"] Why are you thanking the mayor for putting his community at risk? "[Cities and towns would not be burdened with dealing with adopting measuresd to protect the community, if our state got serious and kept these predators in prison where they belong."] I agree that predators should remain in prison. But fyi, the registry is chock-full of individuals who for one reason or another simply made a one time mistake and they are not a threat to the community. Unintended consequences, or are they?
Bridget Lynch October 12, 2012 at 06:17 PM
Mr. Smith, How old are your children?
Shelly Stow October 12, 2012 at 08:57 PM
I have children and grandchildren, and Mr. Smith is correct. Whoever is promoting this ordinance should be required to produce evidence and studies that show a correlation between ordinances like this one and greater safety, less sexual offenses, or few victims. He will be unable to produce any because there is none. This is who children are at risk for sexual abuse from: strangers not on a sex offender registry: between 2 and 5%; family members, other trusted adults in their lives, and their peers: 95 + %; a stranger who is a registered sex offender: less than 1%.
Allan Davis October 13, 2012 at 04:03 PM
Most disturbing is there are studies that prove that these types of ordences actually end up putting more children at risk. While the recidivisim among those who have offended is very very low, there are some that do reoffend. Not many but some. However what this banishment and unconstitutional based laws and town ordences do are remove the three things that we know reduces recidivisim, stable housing, stable employment, and access to services. These laws are about retubution and shaming and are not only popular with those with a vigilanti mind set, but are most often flaunted as being "tough on crime" by politicians promoting their own careers at the expense and risk of our children.

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