The state House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday heard testimony on a bill that would place restrictions on where sexually violent predators could live in Pennsylvania. But experts testified that such restrictions have been struck down on constitutional grounds in the past, and address a perceived problem not based on evidence.
House Bill 77 is co-sponsored by state Reps. Arvind Venkat, D-Allegheny, and Tina Davis, D-Bucks. It would amend state law to prevent sexually violent offenders from living near schools and daycare centers.
Under Pennsylvania Title 42, also known as Megan’s Law, a sexually violent predator, or SVP, is a “convicted sexual offender who has been determined by the Court, after evaluation by the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, to have a mental abnormality or personality disorder that makes the person likely to engage in predatory sexually violent offenses.” Not all sex offenders are considered SVPs under state law.
Venkat said he introduced HB 77 after constituents in his suburban Pittsburgh district contacted him and state Rep. Rob Mercuri, R-Allegheny, with concerns about a sexually violent predator who had moved near an elementary school in Hampton Township.
“What struck me in my conversations with my constituents is certainly there are understandable concerns related to the safety of their children or the potential concern for safety for their children,” Venkat said. “But also understanding that this is a nuanced issue 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.”
The bill would amend Title 42 to prohibit sexually violent predators from residing within 2,500 feet of a daycare center or public, private, or parochial school.
Venkat noted that while these SVPs must register with authorities under Megan’s Law, there is no restriction on where they can live under Pennsylvania state law, where such restrictions are determined on a case-by-case basis.
Twenty states have residency restrictions in effect for all registered sex offenders.
When he was drafting the legislation, Venkat said he received feedback from constituents asking why he was limiting the restrictions to schools and daycares, and not including places like parks or churches where children might congregate.
“I do think that there is a balance that needs to be struck in terms of the pragmatism of not having a place where these individuals can live at all, versus the fact that schools clearly are the most concentrated location where children are likely to congregate, and that is, and it should be, a risk-mitigation concern,” he said Tuesday.
Venkat added that he was seeking insight about due process and the constitutional rights of the offenders “as well as: Is this an effective measure? Will this in fact reduce recidivism?”
The short answer to both questions, experts said, is “probably not,” and that the restrictions might actually cause other problems.
“The assumptions that we are using to place these conditions and restrictions on these people are rooted in our negative emotional responses to these types of crimes rather than the data that is available,” said Veronica Miller, senior policy counsel for criminal legal reform at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Miller said that in the mid-1990s, when sex offender registration and notification laws began, there was a combination of fear and sincere desire to protect children. The restrictions on where offenders can live were based on the assumption that they’re likely to re-offend, she added.
“People convicted of sex offenses have some of the lowest recidivism rates, while our misconception and belief is that they re-offend very highly, and that it’s also strangers who commit these sex offenses,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, those in most circumstances of abuse against children are acquaintances, family members, people in positions of authority, or people who supervise these children.”
Miller said local ordinances in New York and New Jersey that have tried to place residency restrictions on sex offenders have been struck down on constitutional grounds.
This has happened in Pennsylvania as well, she added. In 2011, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated a 2007 Allegheny County ordinance restricting registered sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, child-care facilities, community centers, parks, or recreational facilities, saying that in addition to violating state law, it would interfere with attempts to rehabilitate the offenders.
Then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille wrote in the decision that the ordinance “undermines the General Assembly’s policies of rehabilitation, reintegration, and diversion from prison of appropriate offenders and significantly interferes with the operation of the sentencing and parole codes,” adding that the ordinance created “localized penal colonies,” for offenders.
“Unfortunately, while aimed at protecting children, I believe House Bill 77 misses the mark,” Miller said Tuesday. “Residency restrictions also threaten the stability of registrants, which actually has the possibility of creating public safety concerns.”
Brandi Stewart is deputy executive director of the Joseph H. Peters Institute in Philadelphia, which treats victims of sexual abuse, as well as those with problematic sexual behavior. Stewart said she is a licensed psychologist who has been practicing in the fields of sexual abuse and trauma for the past 22 years.
She’s also a mother of two children, and testified that HB 77 would not meet its goal of protecting children from sexually violent predators, which she said is the goal of all health care professionals who deal with and treat such offenders.
“This proposed legislation does not promote public safety and will most likely give society a false sense of security,” Stewart said. “Moreover, this legislation might undermine [sexually violent predators’] treatment and successful reintegration into society and in turn, increase their risk for criminal recidivism.”
Stewart said there was no evidence supporting the notion that such residency restrictions prevent crimes, or that registered sex offenders who live closer to child-frequented places are more likely to commit additional crimes than those who do not.
She echoed Miller’s testimony that very few sex offenders search for child victims in such places. The overwhelming majority of children who are sexually abused are abused at the hands of someone they know, Stewart said.
“Sex offenders don’t choose children to abuse because they live near a park or school or playground. These pedophilic-driven individuals nurture their victims,” she added. “They build relationships, they build trust, and then they use their position of authority to do sexual harm. It’s not physical proximity, but it’s social proximity that will lead to future offenses.”
Mark Bergstrom is executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, which adopts guidelines for sentencing, resentencing, parole, and recommitment, and monitors compliance. He raised the concern that by making the restricted zones around schools and daycare centers too large, it would make it harder for the offenders to find anywhere to live, and make it much harder for authorities to keep track of them.
“What we have seen in other jurisdictions that do have exclusion zones, is that sometimes people drop out of the system. It’s hard to track people if there’s not a house that they’re living in,” he said. “It’s one thing to supervise them while they’re on probation or parole. But it’s another thing to supervise or track them when they’re not under supervision, but they’re subject to Megan’s Law.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, thanked Venkat for raising the issue, but noted the testimony suggested that the residential restriction may not be a viable solution. But, he added, it served the best interests of children and “those individuals who have done their time and are released back into society as well to be protected from their own bad impulses. So we look forward to working on this more and maybe finding other solutions.”