A bill that would restrict where certain sex offenders could live in Pennsylvania got a skeptical reception at a House hearing on Tuesday, with discussion centering around whether such measures actually increase public safety.
The House Judiciary Committee held an informational session Tuesday on House Bill 77, which would require that anyone who has been adjudicated as a “sexually violent predator” under Pennsylvania’s sex crimes law could not live within 2,500 feet of a school or child care center.
Although judges can impose residency restrictions on a case-by-case basis, typically through an offender’s parole conditions, Pennsylvania does not have any blanket rules on where offenders can live.
House Bill 77 would change this when it comes to those deemed violent, and also impose residency restrictions for life, not just for the term of a parole sentence.
The bill was introduced by Reps. Armind Venkat, D-Allegheny, and Rob Mercuri, R-Allegheny, whose districts share the municipality of Hampton Township. The bill is a response to a public outcry, Venkat said, that occurred when a violent sex offender moved in close to a school in the township.
But none of the experts who testified Tuesday were directly supportive of the bill, and several were explicitly opposed, voicing concern that similar measures in other states have forced offenders into homelessness or otherwise made it more difficult for them to receive psychiatric treatment, increasing the risk that they will re-offend.
Pennsylvania’s sex crimes law, commonly known as Megan’s Law, requires different release conditions for different levels of offenders, including registering their residences with law enforcement. The law went into effect in 1996, and was substantially updated for 2012 to be in compliance with new federal standards.
As part of the process in Megan’s Law, a certain offender can be adjudicated as a sexually violent predator (SVP) via a civil hearing by the state’s offense board, which must find that the offender has a “a mental abnormality or personality disorder” that makes them more likely to commit such crimes.
As currently written, House Bill 77 would apply the 2,500-foot residency restriction only to SVPs adjudicated before the 2012 update, noted Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing Executive Director Mark Bergstrom, but Venkat said that was not his intent and the bill would be amended if necessary to include all SVPs.
In 2022, Pennsylvania had 22,377 registered sex offenders, of which 2,590 were SVPs, according to the Pennsylvania State Police’s most recent Megan’s Law report.
Venkat acknowledged at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing that “we need to find a way to balance the safety of the community along with understanding that rendering these individuals homeless and not able to be connected would be as dangerous for the community.”
“There is no question that they may be challenging, but that there is the opportunity and ability to do so and that’s been shown in other states and municipalities,” Venkat said of residency restrictions.
However, several who testified Tuesday challenged this outlook, pointing to copious prior instances in other states where such measures have gone awry. The core issue is that, particularly in urban areas, the volume of schools and daycares effectively makes entire metropolitan areas off-limits of sex offenders.
Bergstrom presented a number of maps (based only on the location of schools, not child care facilities) showing several municipalities – including Harrisburg itself – where SVPs would have effectively nowhere to reside under House Bill 77, given that 2,500 feet is nearly a half-mile.
“If you talk about taking the City of Harrisburg off the map in terms of residences, then where are those people living and how do you supervise them?” Bergstrom posed, noting that other jurisdictions “have experienced difficulties supervising and enforcing conditions on those on probation and parole” after residency restrictions forced large numbers of offenders into homelessness.
In Milwaukee, for example, a 2,000-foot residency rule meant that only 117 addresses in the entire city could be occupied by registered offenders, according to the Journal-Sentinel. Within two years of the law’s enactment, the number of unaccounted-for homeless sex offenders spiked from 15 to 230.
Veronica Miller, a policy counsel for the ACLU of PA, pointed Tuesday to a similar situation in Iowa, where the number of registered sex offenders who could not be located by law enforcement doubled within six months of residency restrictions going into place.
Miller also pointed to several studies showing that registered sex offenders who committed a further sexual offense would not have been impacted by residency restrictions, given that the vast majority of sex crimes are against someone the perpetrator already knows and not against victims selected because of proximity.
“This is largely creating more problems than it would solve,” Miller said of residency rules.
Said Brandi Stewart with the Joseph J. Peters Institute, a trauma therapy agency whose work includes treating sex offenders, “This proposed legislation does not promote public safety and will most likely give society a false sense of security.”
The disruption to offenders’ housing “may undermine supervised treatment and successful reintegration into society and increase their risk for recidivism,” Stewart said.
One of the largest data analyses on the issue, published in 2009, showed that 10.9% of sex offenders who completed psychiatric treatment committed another sex offense in the next five years, vs. a 19.2% recidivism rate for those who did not complete treatment.
Venkat – a medical doctor – questioned if some of the comparative data would apply to his proposal, since it is targeted only to SVPs who are, in his experience, more incorrigible given that “our ability to treat and manage personality disorders is quite limited.”
House Bill 77 could be taken up when the House returns to voting session at the end of the month, although several lawmakers indicated they would look to find other ways to enhance the commonwealth’s sex offense laws given the concerns raised.
“Perhaps in this case, based upon the testimony we’ve heard today, there is not statistical data to indicate this is the best solution. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other solutions or approaches to be considered,” said Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin County.
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