The City of Lockport is between a rock and a hard place. City fathers know full well the threat that medium- and high-risk sex offenders pose to the community. So, 6 years ago they instituted a residency limit that kept Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a child-centered gathering place (schools, day care centers, playgrounds, etc). Unfortunately, they also know too well that good laws can be negated by bad laws (or the interpretation thereof): Last month they had to scrap the buffer zone under the premise that state rule trumps local rule. Similar laws were being squashed by the courts throughout the state (6 counties and counting) and had Lockport maintained the law, they were only opening up themselves for lawsuits from money-hungry perps.
In the first month following the striking of the residency limit, 3 Level 2 offenders expressed interest in moving into what were formerly safe zones, while a Level 3 actually moved in. As police officer Thomas Gmerek told the Lockport paper, “it is, for lack of a better term, open season now”, highlighting the dangers posed to our youth.
This also highlights what’s wrong with the concept of rule in modern America. Our nation was devised to be governed by the bottom-up, not the top down. The most powerful, efficient and effective governments (and services and protections rendered) were supposed to come from the towns and cities where the people themselves would have the ability to participate and have a say. Instead, we’ve come to rely on the states and they (and we) on the federal system. Lockport knew what was best for its citizens. But, it couldn’t make due on its promises to protect them because the state in its alleged kinder and gentler ways (fostered by the misplaced compassion and intellectual vanity of downstate legislators) places a greater emphasis on the assumed positive outcomes of rehabilitation than it does on continued penalties against criminals (even those who committed sexual acts upon children). Under state law, the 1,000-foot buffer affects only Level 3s who are on parole or probation. If they have cleared either of those categories, they are allowed to live where they’d like.
It’s frustrating because the dangers posed by Level 3s – the worst of the worst - are fully understood by the lawmakers and the courts. By definition, someone in that category carries a high risk of repeat offense and constitutes a potential threat to public safety. A variety of studies have shown recidivism rates around 12%. That means 12 out of every 100 molesters, rapists and other deviants are going to commit another sexual crime. When you consider that there are 32,000 sex offenders in the state, that means every year 3,840 children and women will have their bodies – and minds – defiled by a freak who was already convicted of committing those unspeakable acts against others. That statistic, as with all rapes and molestation reports, is probably too small, as most go unreported because of the fear and trauma associated with the acts and the repercussions which range from traumatic stress disorder to threats of violence levied against the victim from the perpetrator. Regardless, 12% is frightening.
We need to protect children from Level 2s and Level 3s, especially when the courts won’t handle the latter with lifetime confinement. One way to afford that protection is through stronger residency limits. Since the courts won’t allow local rule, it’s up to the legislators to rewrite state law to, at minimum, put all registered Level 3s in the 1,000-foot limit. Better yet, they should put residency limits at full discretion of the communities. Think about this: The state’s proposed plans for hydrofracking puts the allowance of this method of gas extraction in a specific area totally under home rule – it will be up to the local municipalities (and its elected officials and/or residents) to allow it. If we can put such power to protect our environment in the hands of the people, why can’t we do the same for the power to protect our children?
In the meantime, with school in session and kids moving about in areas once deemed safe but now frequented by sex offenders, be diligent. It’s up to the community to keep an eye on shady behavior and shady people and it’s up to the kids to understand the dangers posed to them and how to react – and speak up – if something or someone strange presents itself.
Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column originally ran in the 10 September 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers