Protecting kids from sex offenders is a noble goal, but the best way to go about doing so is unclear -- a county ordinance, a lawsuit and pending appeal later, it's still contentious.
Allegheny County passed an ordinance in 2007, in an effort to keep kids out of the grasp of sex offenders by limiting where the ex-cons can live. On March 20, U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster ruled that the measure was unconstitutional. A few days later, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato announced the county would appeal the decision.
"We believe it is important to appeal this ruling in order to provide an additional level of protection for children here in Allegheny County," Onorato said in a March 24 statement.
Under the state's "Megan's Law," sex offenders must register with the state police and have their photos, addresses and places of employment displayed on a publicly accessible Web site upon parole. Offenders must also obtain approval from the state Parole and Probation Board before moving. But the county's ordinance goes farther, prohibiting Megan's Law offenders from moving to certain areas at all. The ordinance prohibits offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school, child-care facility, park or recreation facility, or any other "community center."
In other words, the ordinance bars them from living almost anywhere. As Lancaster's ruling noted, "[T]he vast majority of Allegheny County falls within the restricted zone, with permissible areas generally confined to outlying, suburban communities such as Sewickley Heights, Bell Acres, South Fayette, Collier and West Deer."
The county had prepared a map showing the areas where sex offenders could and couldn't live. That map has since been made unavailable because the county agreed not to enforce the ordinance until the lawsuits were resolved, but a map compiled for City Paper by Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System suggests the scope of the problem.
The CP map isn't complete: It does not reflect the locations of "community centers," because the term is so vague. But in a county divided into 130 municipalities and 43 school districts, a lot of acreage is put off-limits just by factoring in schools and parks alone. As the map suggests, almost the entire city of Pittsburgh is off-limits. So are inner-ring suburbs like Wilkinsburg and Homestead.
The most prominent exceptions are the county's sprawling suburbs, where distances between schools and other community centers are largest.
Even there, housing is more limited than the map suggests. As Lancaster noted, the county restrictions do not take into account "the topography of the permissible areas, nor whether residential housing is permitted or available." For example, Findlay Township on the county's western border looks wide open. But much of the area is occupied by a landfill and the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Gary Klingman, Findlay's township manager, expresses some concern that the township could serve as a haven for sex offenders. But, he adds, "You would have to look at the zoning of the property." Much of the land is zoned for industrial and commercial use, not residential occupancy.
Many offenders would have a hard time affording to live in those communities anyway. According to the state-maintained "Megan's List," Sewickley Heights is home to only one offender. West Deer is home to two. By contrast, the list identifies 15 offenders currently residing in Homestead, 19 in Wilkinsburg -- two communities that would be almost entirely off-limits under the ban. (None of those offenders would be forced to move -- the ordinance clearly "grandfathers in" offenders who made their homes before it was enacted. Should they move, though, they would be subject to the restrictions.)
County Councilor Vince Gastgeb, who authored the ordinance, says maps may oversimplify the issue. While Bethel Park, which the Republican calls home, is mostly off-limits to sex offenders, "My street is not residency-restricted. An offender could live on it."
Gastgeb says he crafted the ordinance in response to "an outcry from my district": Constituents in Mount Lebanon were concerned that a Megan's Law offender was living near a school, he says. Council unanimously approved the measure.
"It's very clear that we're listening to what our constituents want," Gastgeb says. State law is silent on where offenders can live, he says, and "probably the county is better suited to make that distinction.
"We're trying to do that," he adds, "but one judge is legislating from the bench."
There is considerable skepticism as to whether residency restrictions work. In an oft-cited 2007 study, the Minnesota Department of Corrections followed sex offenders after parole, and found that of the 224 sex crimes they subsequently committed, "not one ... would likely have been affected by residency restrictions."
And Allegheny County isn't the first community to ponder the headaches that restrictions bring. Dade County, in Florida, has a similar ordinance in place. As a result, a group of offenders garnered national headlines in 2007 when it turned out they'd been compelled to live underneath a bridge -- one of the few sheltered areas that wasn't prohibited. According to news accounts, probation officers visit the site regularly, but they concede that other offenders have been forced into homelessness in places where they aren't so easy to find.
So far, Allegheny County hasn't had to contend with such issues: It hasn't tried to enforce the rule at all. "[A]fter it was adopted, the ACLU brought suit pretty quickly," says Onorato spokesman Kevin Evanto. "We agreed not to enforce the ordinance pending their challenge."
But if Lancaster's ruling is reversed and the law is put into effect, some officials say it might do as much harm as good.
Lauren Taylor is executive director of the state Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, which decides how to handle sex offenders once they are released from prison. Residency restrictions can be "an impediment to finding and keeping regular employment," she says. And lack of access to transportation from remote areas means "it might be difficult" for sex offenders to get to therapists who provide treatment -- in some cases, state-mandated treatment.
"All the professionals agree an unstable sex offender is more dangerous than a monitored one living next door to you," says Taylor.
Such considerations were among the reasons the ACLU challenged the law on behalf of six sex offenders -- one of whom remained in prison after he was paroled because he couldn't find a place to live in Allegheny County.
"We argued [the ordinance] was flawed in multiple ways," says Sara Rose, staff attorney for the ACLU. (Full disclosure: Rose has also done legal work for City Paper's attempt to open the divorce case of Richard Mellon Scaife.) In addition to arguing that the law was unconstitutional, Rose says the law "makes it harder for the board of probation to do its job."
The law, she adds, "gives people a false sense of security. It prevents resources from being placed where they need to be. If you're living under a bridge, you don't have a lot to lose."
Indeed, Lancaster's ruling argues, "Rehabilitation and reintegration depend on the creation and maintenance of a stable environment and support system, close to family ties, employment and treatment options. ... When the state has decided that the offender is ready to return to his community, the County has placed a nearly insurmountable obstacle in the way of that return."
"We took all that into consideration, we felt at the end of the day it would be impossible to prove a negative," says Gastgeb. "It's like saying, 'Why put a stop sign at an intersection? An accident might not happen.'"