Montville - The executive director of a leading civil rights advocacy group on Wednesday harshly criticized two ordinances the town has adopted that place restrictions on where registered sex offenders are allowed in town.
The two ordinances create so-called child and senior safety zones. Marked by signs, these zones are designed to keep registered sex offenders from town-owned and town-leased property such as the senior center, senior buses, parks, playgrounds, beaches and sports fields.
Some town councilors have argued the safety zones put registered sex offenders on notice that they're being watched by the town.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of the state American Civil Liberties Union, said Wednesday the restrictions are ineffective because they do not focus on offenders who are a threat. He also sees no evidence to support the town's belief that its seniors are targets of sex crimes.
"There's no rationale behind any of this. It tramples on basic fundamental rights," Schneider said. "It seems to be this sort of baseless fear."
The safety zones first were proposed as the town fought the state's plan to open a residential sex-offender treatment facility on the grounds of the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center. The 24-bed January Center opened Feb. 14.
The ordinances allow the town to issue a $99 fine to a sex offender who is found in either a child or senior safety zone. A police officer would determine the person is a sex offender by asking for a name, address and phone number.
Schneider said the restrictions unfairly lump all sex offenders together and could serve to banish people from town who already have paid for their crimes.
He also pointed to studies in the last decade that have shown that in many cases, there is a relatively low risk of sex offenders committing sex crimes once they are released from prison. He went on to argue that these zones could further stigmatize and isolate offenders.
Town Councilor Billy Caron said Wednesday he understood many of Schneider's points. But he said it is more important to consider the safety of the town's children and seniors above those convicted of sex crimes.
"The seniors and the children of the town deserve to have as much protection as we can give them from these sex offenders," Caron said. "These are not only child safety zones and senior safety zones - these are comfort zones. This is part of our job to protect our citizens."
Both zones would have no effect on private property, such as the Hillcrest senior retirement community, Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel Jr. said. Exceptions also exist for sex offenders who wish to enter a municipal building or school to vote in an election, pick up a child or family member or have a parent-teacher conference.
Councilor Dana McFee has been a staunch critic of both the child and senior safety zones. He called them "feel-good" ordinances that are unenforceable and a waste of time.
Councilor Rosetta Jones, a former warden in the state Department of Correction, said at a council meeting last month that it will be difficult to identify sex offenders in the community because they blend in. She said she would rather see the town focus its efforts on the issue elsewhere.
"I think the resources would be better spent if we were to provide education and public programs and conversations with parents and students about how to keep them safe," Jones said. "That would be a lot more effective."
William Anselmo, a chief probation specialist with the state, said Wednesday that it is standard for the state to restrict where certain sex offenders on probation are allowed to go. For instance, a person convicted of a sex crime against a minor would be restricted from being in the presence of children and would not be allowed to loiter at school yards.
Anselmo said his office works on "action plans" for sex offenders who wish to change a daily routine. If the offender were to visit a senior center to drop off a family member, Anselmo said, the state would ask a number of questions about what exactly would take place. He said it's a good possibility a probation officer would inform the center of the visit beforehand.
The Town Council passed the ordinance creating child safety zones on Sept. 10; it went into effect Wednesday. Wednesday night, the council passed the senior safety zone ordinance by a 4-2 vote, and it will go into effect in 30 days. Jones, who cast a dissenting vote, argued to postpone the vote so that language in the ordinance could be revised.
A map of both zones will be made available at the mayor's office and the town police station. The ordinance says that McDaniel or the resident state trooper will provide written notice of the safety zones to registered sex offenders.
Schneider said the ACLU has worked to prevent similar restrictions and laws in other places, including Greenwich, where child safety zones precluding sex offenders were proposed two years ago.
"I think the bottom line is, these fears are unwarranted," Schneider said. "There seems to be nothing real that is driving this."