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Safety fears expand exclusion zones Extending banned neighborhoods could make entire communities off-limits to sex offenders

In protecting children from sex offenders, area cities, towns and villages say that something is better than nothing.

A growing number of local communities are following a national trend to tell child sex offenders they can't live near schools and parks.

Amherst, Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Lancaster and Depew have enacted similar laws in the last six months. They prohibit child sex offenders from living within 1,500 feet, or in Amherst's case, one-quarter mile, of schools, day care centers and playgrounds.

Cheektowaga wants to add community centers, teen facilities, dance halls and skating rinks to its residency restrictions. Aurora is among the area municipalities still considering restricting where sex offenders can live.

The City of Lockport is considering a similar law, which could end up barring sex offenders from living in the city.

"It has to start somewhere, and it's what the people want," said Amherst Council Member Shelly Schratz.

"There's a need to form a barrier and protection for the children," Cheektowaga Council Member Alice Magierski added. "Will it stop them? We can't know that for sure."

Some say other methods of protecting children are more effective, and even the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children says residency laws are not the best way to deal with sex offenders. Questions also have arisen about a practice that amounts to zoning people the same way communities zone businesses.

John A. Curr III, acting director of the Western Regional Office of the New York Civil Liberties Union, is among those saying the state should take a uniform approach to these types of laws. While few want to speak out in support of those who commit reprehensible crimes, he says he wonders which group will be the next to be singled out.

"We've made it easier to do it for people who aren't reprehensible," he said.

>Ban would leave little room

As a byproduct, a residency restriction could exclude sex offenders from living in certain communities and force them to other areas with fewer schools and playgrounds.

Lockport, for example, has 10 public schools, 27 parks and several day care centers and nursery schools within the nine-square-mile city. The city is considering banning sex offenders from living within a quarter mile of a school, park or other spot where children congregate.

That covers most, if not all of the city, lawmakers said last week.

"Everybody would be outside the city limits," Alderman Joseph C. Kibler said during last week's Common Council meeting. "Are we going to get in trouble sending them all to the town [of Lockport]?"

Laws targeting sex criminals have become the norm in the past decade, starting with Megan's Law in 1996, which required public notification when a sex offender is released or moves into a new neighborhood.

Last year, Florida enacted the Jessica Lunsford Act, which imposed stricter penalties for sex crimes against children and mandated satellite tracking for some convicted sex offenders.

At least 13 states ban convicted sex offenders from living near schools or other places where children congregate, the National Conference of State Legislatures says. But with statewide residency restrictions, sex offenders can be banned from many urban areas, pushing them to less populated rural areas.

The laws have stood up to court challenges, so far. A federal appeals court last year upheld an Iowa law that prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care facility.

Iowa towns are going further, adding parks, swimming pools and bus stops to the the ban. Cheektowaga will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Monday in Town Hall, 3301 Broadway at Union Road, on expanding its restrictions to include community centers, skating rinks, teen centers and dance halls.

"It's similar to a zoning law," Cheektowaga Town Attorney Michael Stachowski said. "We're not telling them they can't be in the town at all; we're telling them they can't be in certain areas."

Not all agree with the approach.

"We're talking about our fear of recidivism," Curr of the NYCLU said. "We need to have more of a comprehensive approach than setting up a post-conviction felony zone."

Residency restrictions are not the best way to manage sex offenders, said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"Sex offenders can get access to children in other ways. They can drive to school grounds even though they can't live within a certain number of feet from them," she said.

>False sense of security feared

She said such legislation can give people a false sense of security.

"The problem of sex offenders is multifaceted and requires a multifaceted solution. There's no quick fix, such as saying 'no sex offenders here; now our kids are safe.' It's not that simple," Atwell-Davis said.

As an answer to patchwork laws, Assemblyman James P. Hayes, R-Amherst, says a statewide civil confinement law should place sex offenders in a secure facility after they finish jail time.

"I understand why municipalities are doing it," he said. "I support them. I think the true answer is to push for a civil confinement."

Officials say the laws create awareness.

"The more communities and municipalities create their own local laws, the louder the message will get to the state and federal level," Magierski said.

"What do we do? Nothing?" Schratz asked. "I will not sit back and wait for someone else's child to be kidnapped."

Stachowski, Cheektowaga's town attorney, says he believes the laws will hold up in court.

"I'm comfortable with it because we have to protect our populace from the repeat offenders," Stachowski said. "If just taking some of those people out of the equation makes it safer for some, our town has done its job."


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