Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Word is getting around about the absence of residency limits for registered sex offenders in the City of Lockport.
According to veteran police officer Thomas Gmerek, who keeps watch over offenders in the city, in the past month, one high-risk registered sex offender moved into, and three medium- or high-risk offenders have inquired about moving into, neighborhoods that used to be off-limits to them.
The expressions of interest come after the Common Council on Aug. 1 repealed a six-year-old local law that banned certain registered sex offenders from establishing residence within 1,000 feet of child-centered gathering places including schools, day care centers and playgrounds. The law was similar to laws passed in other local municipalities including the cities of North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls.
The Council repealed Lockport's law on the advice of City Attorney John Ottaviano, who recently became aware that other New York municipalities' limiting laws are being struck down, one after another, by state and federal courts because they improperly exceed the state's regulations on sex offenders' residency.
Lockport's local law banned all Level 2- and Level 3-designated sex offenders, who were convicted of a sexual offense against a minor, from establishing residence anywhere less than 1,000 feet from any child-centered gathering place.
The state designates convicted offenders as Level 1, 2 or 3, signifying they're considered at low, medium or high risk of committing new sex crimes. And according to state penal law, only offenders whose victims were minors, and Level 3-designated offenders who are on parole or probation, are subject to residency limits.
When Gmerek informed the council in mid-July that a Level 2-designated sex offender had threatened to sue the city, Ottaviano conceded the local law attempting to regulate that offender's residency was "unenforceable" and the offender potentially could win damages as well as get the law overturned in court. Thus the law, enacted in 2006 to protect children, was repealed to protect taxpayers.
Sex offenders in the region seem aware of the change in Lockport, Gmerek told the US&J last week.
State law requires every registered sex offender to report changes of residence to their local police agency, and Gmerek said among the calls he's fielded in the past month, four were from offenders "thinking about" moving from Medina, Niagara Falls and other places where local residency limits remain on the books.
Since Aug. 1, six registered sex offenders have established residence in the city. Gmerek said they're "mostly" Level 1 designates, who were not subject to residency restrictions under the old local law.
In addition, Gmerek said, a Level 3-designated offender moved within the city to a neighborhood that formerly was a "safe zone."
"Obviously, the word is out there," he said. "It is, for lack of a better term, open season now."
Simultaneous with repeal of the local law, the Council passed a resolution calling on the state Legislature to adopt a statewide version of the same.
A number of bills have been introduced in the state Assembly and/or Senate over the years proposing residency limits for some or all registered sex offenders. According to the chambers' online legislation logs, at least a dozen bills were introduced in the Assembly, and four bills were introduced in the Senate, in the 2011-12 session. Two bills were passed by the Senate, but in the Assembly, all 12 bills are stuck in committee — meaning the question of residency limits for offenders hasn't gone to a vote at all.
In 2011-12, state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, was the prime sponsor of S. 1194, a bill to amend the Sex Offenders Registration Act ("Megan's Law," which he also sponsored, in 1999, creating the state sex offenders registry and tracking system) and define "residence" as any place of domicile or inhabitance where a convicted sex offenders spends more than two days a week. The bill passed the Senate twice but died in the Assembly last year and remains in committee this year.
Also in this session, he's a co-sponsor of bills to ban all registered sex offenders from living within 500 feet of elementary and high schools, and restrict the numbers of Level 2 and Level 3-designated offenders moving into areas that already have high concentrations of such offenders. Those bills passed the Senate but haven't been voted on by the Assembly.
The "downstate, Democratic" led Assembly seems unwilling to get tougher on crime and criminals, Maziarz charged. The urban-oriented contingent seem more concerned with the civil rights of perpetrators than victims, and laws like Megan's Law are made only after intense public pressure is put on the leadership, he said.
"The Assembly almost never passes bills that increase penalties ... . It's very difficult for them to pass criminal justice legislation," Maziarz said.
Lockport's state Assembly representative, Jane Corwin, R-Clarence, agreed with that assessment, and laid blame for the lack of voting on Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.
Corwin is drafting a bill now, for January 2013 introduction in the Assembly, that would draw a 1,000-foot protection boundary around schools and other child-centered places. Which registered sex offenders the law would apply to, some or all, she's still discussing with her legal counsel and staff, she said Monday.
The keys to her bill are clear definitions of terms including "residency" and "school" — to clear up discrepancies between existing state and local laws — and recruitment of co-sponsors from both parties and across the state, she said. One of the problems she sees with prior proposed bills is they appear written to respond to specific incidents in the authors' districts. She's aiming for a law that "standardizes how the state addresses (living arrangements) of convicted sex offenders."
"I want to propose a statewide solution to a statewide problem," Corwin said. "A comprehensive solution is needed."
Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Tucker's Aug. 10 letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, describing the city's repeal dilemma and asking Cuomo's help getting the state law "tighten(ed) up," got a cursory response from Mary Kavaney, assistant secretary for the state Office for Public Safety.
"Basically she said thanks for your note, we look forward to working with you on this important issue; she acknowledged my letter and made no promises," Tucker said. "Whoop-de-doo."