LEWISTON — An ordinance aimed at restricting where convicted sex offenders are allowed to live split the City Council on Tuesday, and was ultimately tabled.
The council sought more time to make the decision after hearing arguments from local law enforcement, which drafted the ordinance, as well as testimony from residents and local organizations who believe the restrictions aren’t necessary and could create unintended consequences.
The proposed restrictions, which already exist in other Maine communities, including Auburn, are meant to prohibit known offenders from residing in areas of the city with “significant concentrations” of children – mainly near public schools and parks.
The residency restrictions are based on state guidelines, and would prohibit sex offenders convicted of offenses against persons under 14 at the time of the offense from living in designated areas. However, those already living in the zones would be grandfathered until they move.
According to the guidelines, offenders must live at least 750 feet from a designated area.
The issue became a back-and-forth Tuesday between the law enforcement stance and local advocates who said the restrictions have been known to isolate offenders and make them more difficult to track. They also said removing offenders from downtown areas can cut their access to needed rehabilitation programs.
The discussion rolled on for more than an hour.
Arguments also arose over the rates of recidivism among offenders. Those opposed to the restrictions say the rate is very low, but Councilor Tim Lajoie, who has worked in law enforcement for a number of years, called the figures presented “a crock.”
Lajoie, however, swayed on the issue. He first said he would not support it because it “could make the problem worse,” but then said he would vote in favor as a vote of confidence in Police Chief Brian O’Malley, who had initiated the ordinance.
According to police records, there are 180 registered sex offenders in Lewiston, a number that has grown by about 25 percent in a year. Police said the uptick may have been caused by other communities, like neighboring Auburn, passing similar ordinances, but Lewiston Detective William Brochu said only one or two known offenders have moved across the river since Auburn’s ordinance was passed in February.
However, O’Malley said, 112 of the offenders registered are not originally from Lewiston.
Councilor Jim Lysen said the ordinance was a “solution looking for a problem,” and that the council has not had enough time to make a decision.
He also cited a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine that was sent to city officials Tuesday that said “research shows no correlation between residency restrictions and reducing sex offenses against children or improving the safety of children.”
Residents Melissa Dunn and Michael Peterson spoke at length Tuesday with similar evidence. Peterson told councilors that the ordinance would add to Lewiston’s homelessness problem while also giving a “false sense of security to neighbors.”
They said the ordinance language plays into the “stranger danger” mentality, when statistics show that most sex crimes against children are committed by family members or people known to the victim.
Peterson also cited a decade-old report from Iowa that said after that state’s residency law took effect, “more sex offenders are eluding tracking by authorities.”
Others, including Councilor Shane Bouchard, said passing the ordinance comes down to an image issue. He asked if Lewiston wants to send the message that they’re not being tough on sex offenders and protecting children.
O’Malley pointed out that members of the press were present, and that their vote could impact how the city is portrayed.
Councilor Joline Beam later said, “I feel like my arm is being twisted,” in regard to the vote.
When the Auburn City Council passed the ordinance earlier this year, Police Chief Phillip Crowell said there were 52 sex offenders in the city, 25 of whom qualified for the residency restrictions.
According to the Lewiston council memo, “The purpose of the ordinance is to provide such further protective measures, while balancing the interests and residential needs of sex offenders.”
The City Council voted 5-2 to table the issue. A first reading on the ordinance will be held Oct. 17.