HARRISBURG — A bill proposing residency restrictions for sexually violent predators drew understanding of intent but also raised concerns for potential constitutional violations and overall effectiveness as its terms were discussed during a public hearing of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee.
House Bill 77, introduced by Rep. Arvind Venkat, D-Allegheny, looks to restrict offenders designated as sexually violent predators from living within 2,500 feet of any school, public or private, or day care center.
Venkat and a co-sponsor, Republican Rep. Robert Mercuri, each represent portions of Hampden Township where residents raised concern of a sex offender living close to a local elementary school. The bill was crafted in response as a statewide mandate.
“I do think there is a balance that needs to be struck in terms of the pragmatism of not having a place for these individuals to live at all versus the fact that schools clearly are the most concentrated location where children are most likely to congregate and it should be a risk mitigation concern,” Venkat said during testimony Tuesday.
Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law website states that court-ordered residency restrictions can be placed on offenders as part of sentencing or parole and probation conditions. Local municipalities have enacted residency restrictions but the legality of such has been challenged including one struck down in Allegheny County in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Concerns about the proposal largely revolved around due process and ex post facto punishment, that is, offenders suffering legal punishment beyond the terms of their sentence.
Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, noted the ubiquity of schools and day care centers.
Citing mapping included in a study on drug offenses — dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school zone — Bergstrom said some communities, like Harrisburg, would have little to no areas for offenders to reside with a 2,500-foot restriction.
He also questioned whether the bill was intended to apply to all offenders or if, as currently prepared, the restrictions would apply only to offenders within an 18-year period prior to the adoption of the state’s revised Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act from December 2012.
Veronica Miller, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said existing research shows sex offenders have some of the lowest rates of recidivism on record.
When a similar law was enacted in Ohio, Miller said the number of offenders failing to abide by the state’s Megan’s Law registry doubled. In Florida, she said a similar law spurred homelessness among sex offenders including encampments under bridges.
“I believe this is largely creating more problems than it can solve,” Miller said.
Brandi Stewart, a licensed psychologist specialized in sexual abuse and trauma, said the bill provides only a false sense of security.
There’s no evidence that living in proximity of a school or day care center causes offenders to commit sex crimes against children, Stewart said. She said the vast majority of offenders commit sex crimes against children they know.
“These pedophilic-driven individuals who do sexually offend nurture their victims, 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,” Stewart said.