House committee passes bill prohibiting restrictions on where sex offenders can live
A House committee easily passed a bill, 18-1, prohibiting restrictions on where sex offenders can live yesterday, noting that judges have twice ruled residency restrictions unconstitutional. Still, lawmakers predicted a tough fight in the Senate, which has rejected similar bills before.
“There is a perception that this bill is being soft on crime,” said Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican who voted for the bill. “All of us who have heard (this debate) know the benefits of the bill. But we’re going to need to explain it.”
Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican, cast the lone vote against the bill, saying he didn’t want to tell his constituents they couldn’t determine where sex offenders could and could not live.
As many as 11 communities have residency restrictions for sex offenders, said Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat. Londonderry is not one of them, according to the town’s website. Locally, Tilton, Northfield and Boscawen have such restrictions. Both Northfield’s and Tilton’s ordinances prohibit people convicted of sex crimes against children from living within 2,500 feet of schools, child-care centers and playgrounds. Boscawen’s ordinance was not available yesterday.
Tilton adopted its ordinance in 2007 and added this explanation to it: “Acknowledging that sex offenders who prey on children are at a higher risk of re-offending, the town of Tilton has a compelling interest and responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of its children by restricting access to areas where there (is) a high concentration of children.”
However, two judges have found otherwise. In 2009, a district court judge in Dover ruled that city’s residency restriction invalid because the city had not shown a “substantial relationship” between the ordinance and the protection of children. In 2012, Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler came to the same conclusion when the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union appealed Franklin’s ordinance.
Cushing, a member of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the bill prohibiting residency restrictions is necessary because it will take costly legal fights to undo the 11 ordinances still in place across the state. “The simple thing that can be done is to pass a bill that incorporates the . . . courts’ decisions.”
Cushing also argued that restricting housing for sex offenders pushes them “underground,” in campgrounds, under bridges and to other places the police cannot monitor. He said communities are safer if the police know where sex offenders live and require yearly registration with the local police.
Baldasaro said he was concerned that if a sex offender moved into a Londonderry neighborhood, “everyone else wants to move out.” He added, “I want to support this bill, but I have to go back to neighborhoods in my district. Who is going to protect the neighbors?”
Rep. Larry Gagne, a Manchester Republican, responded to Baldasaro.
“My first term, I was pretty much a hard-liner,” he said. “I said, ‘Put (sex offenders) in outer space. Put them all on an island.’ But I changed my mind after a (police) sergeant came in and said, ‘If they go underground, we can’t find them.’ ”
Rep. Roger Berube, a Somersworth Democrat, questioned why the state Senate has rejected several similar bills from the House in previous years. “How can they get away with that?” he asked. “It doesn’t appear the Senate is actually listening to the . . . court.”
To that, Rep. Laura Pantelakos, chairwoman of the committee said, “Sometimes the Senate doesn’t listen to anybody.”
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)