AUGUSTA (AP) – Efforts to restrict the movements or housing options of convicted sex offenders have shifted from the local level to the Legislature, setting the stage for a battle between civil libertarians and those who say protecting children should be the top priority.

New legislation would make it illegal for predators to loiter near schools or even prohibit them from living in some communities. Lyman and Waterboro have already passed local ordinances restricting where released sex offenders may live.

The measures come in response to the case of Joseph Tellier, who assaulted a 10-year-old girl. When he got out of prison, residents of several York County towns tried to keep him out of their communities.

Civil libertarians say such restrictions are unconstitutional and largely ineffective, but lawmakers who support the measures say they’re only trying to protect their constituents, especially children.

While the Legislature has rejected such restrictions in the past, lawmakers say they face added pressure this year because of headlines surrounding the Tellier case and efforts to tackle the issue on the local level.

“If the Legislature doesn’t act this time with something that’s meaningful, the towns will do it themselves,” creating a patchwork of municipal restrictions that would lack uniformity and consistency, said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Lawmakers have filed nearly 40 bills dealing with sex offenders, including legislation to change the state’s sex-offender registry.

“I think the Legislature is going to have to do something” because the public is demanding action, said Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton, who has filed a bill to prohibit sex offenders from living in small towns that lack their own police departments.

The Legislature rejected a similar bill in 2005 after critics said it would place an undue burden on larger cities and towns. A competing approach that would have barred sex offenders from living near schools and other places where children congregate also was turned back.

“I sympathize with the legislators’ desire, indeed duty, to keep residents safe,” said Shenna Bellows of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. But she said housing bans punish people twice for the same crime and make communities less safe by driving sex offenders underground.

Gov. John Baldacci has taken no specific positions on the bills. A spokesperson issued a statement saying Baldacci “believes in strengthening laws which make towns and cities safer places for children.”

About two dozen states already have laws that restrict where sex offenders can live or loiter, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Information from: Portland Press Herald,

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