Three Sex Offenders Under One Roof Sparks Debate

Three sex offenders recently moved into a house in rural Hampden, Me., that is operated by a local charity. A local legislator wants to prevent sex offenders from living together, but the charity argues that giving them a supervised place to live actually helps keep the public safer.

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From California to Maine, public pressure has led to legislation limiting where sex offenders can live. The laws may be popular, but some experts argue that the laws are actually making the public less safe.

Jeanne Baron reports on a religious organization in central Maine that offers housing for sex offenders, at least for now.

JEANNE BARON: The Bangor Rescue Mission has been taking on alcoholic or homeless men for more than 40 years. The mission maintains a small pig operation and dormitory style housing for up to 13 men, a few miles outside the town of Hampden, Maine.

Bruce Cane(ph) has been in and out of prison since his first and only sex offense in 2002. When he got to the mission last year, he was 50 years old, he had no money, a felony sex offense on his record and a lifetime of drug and alcohol addiction behind him. If he hadn't found a home at the mission, he says he wouldn't be anywhere good.

Mr. BRUCE CANE: I'd pretty much be either in jail, in a bar, under a bridge or I might be at the judgment seat of Christ wondering how come I took my life out.

BARON: A small boned man with a ponytail, Cane has the worn face of a man who's lived his life on the streets. Cane and two other sex offenders rent bedrooms in the Mission's ramshackle farmhouse for about $200 a month. To live here, they must agree to help run the pig farm until they find paying jobs. They adhere to a 10 p.m. curfew, report their whereabouts throughout the day and attend church services. They must also meet their probation requirements. It's just what Cane says he was looking for.

Mr. CANE: There's somebody watching my every move for a witness to know exactly where I am and what's up with me at all times.

BARON: You like that?

Mr. CANE: I love it.

BARON: Cane was convicted of unlawful sexual contact from a single incident, which prosecutors say involved three siblings, all under 14. As public fears of child molesters have grown, administrators have started to see men with sex offenses arriving at the Mission doors.

Pastor Charles G. Farley of the West End Baptist Church is the organization's board chairman. He says the Bangor Rescue Mission is founded on the belief that men like Cane can redeem their lives.

Pastor CHARLES G. FARLEY (West End Baptist Church): To be honest with you, there but for the grace of God go any of us. Anybody on the street and even myself are a potential sex offender. And so we have to have compassion for them and through the Holy Spirit and through the word of God, I believe that they can be changed.

BARON: But residents in Hampden are not convinced. Maine State Senator Deborah Debra Plowman is one of the Mission's closest neighbors. She says while the sex offenders up the street live cheap at the Mission, her children don't even feel safe in the front yard.

Senator DEBRA PLOWMAN (Republican, Hampden): We used to play in the woods all day long, but if Libby wants to play in the woods, then someone has to be outside there with her to make sure that she's the only person in the woods.

BARON: Plowman submitted a bill to the Maine Legislature that prohibits sex offenders from living in the same house unless there's an onsite trained treatment provider. She also supports communities that have barred child molesters from living near schools and day cares. But a number of treatment experts are exasperated with the wave of housing restrictions placed on sex offenders across the country.

Dr. Leo Carter is a 30-year veteran of providing treatment to sex offenders in Florida. He says lawmakers are under pressure to support housing restrictions, but the stress and isolation of homelessness is a risk factor for committing a new sex crime, an address near a school or at the Bangor Rescue Mission is not.

Mr. LEO CARTER: It is better to have them in a structured group home than to be living under a bridge. There's a growing number of these guys that are now homeless that are transient, so when you go on the computer to find out where they live, there's no address. It's not really making the community safer. We've got a bunch of homeless sex offenders.

BARON: Although research is not yet conclusive, Carter says studies are beginning to raise serious questions about the effectiveness of housing restrictions. There's no way to confirm how many sex offenders have gone missing nationwide, but some places are starting to report problems. The number missing in Iowa has more than doubled since it imposed a 2,000 foot housing restriction around schools and daycare centers last year.

In Oklahoma, a 2,000-foot restriction around schools was expanded early this summer. Now, parks, playgrounds and daycare centers are included. Since then the number of missing sex offenders has gone up almost 18 percent. But criminologist Dr. Magna Singh of Loyola University says he is sympathetic with concerned communities nonetheless. Singh says low risk sex offenders pose little danger no matter where they live, but he says child molesters with a high rate of reoffending need to be watched.

Dr. MAGNA SINGH (Loyola University): They have to be classified in terms of seriousness and also in terms of potential for recidivism. And if you do that, then you can tailor your residence requirements to really what their history are.

BARON: Down the road from the Bangar Rescue Mission, Senator Plowman isn't satisfied that some child molesters may be less dangerous than others. She says her neighborhood is an inappropriate setting for sex offenders. What neighborhood is better, she couldn't say.

For NPR News, I'm Jeanne Baron.

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