ALAN SUDERMAN Associated Press Writer
HELENA Daycare operator Melina Peters looks after all the kids in her care as if they were her own. “They are as much mine as they are their parents in some respects,” the 26- year-old says. So when a registered sex offender, Charles L. Douglas, moved next to Peters’ Loving Arms Daycare in Missoula, her internal alarms went off. “I was horrified, I was so sad,” Peters says. “It just kind of depressed me that that would be allowed.” Convicted in the mid-’90s of sexually assaulting a girl under the age of 15, Douglas is considered by authorities as a “sexually violent predator.” After police told her there was nothing they could do to make Douglas move, Peters contacted Sen. Carolyn Squires, Dmissoula, for help. But Squires’ bill to bar some sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, churches and other areas where children might play drew widespread opposition Friday at a legislative hearing. Members of the American Civil Liberties Union, the state Department of Corrections, the union that represents probation and parole officers, and the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Association told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the proposal would be ineffective at best and harmful and costly at worst. “It doesn’t increase public safety,” said Scott Crichton, executive director of the ACLU of Montana. “It may even make the problem worse.” The new law would restrict sex offenders who are on parole, probation, or a deferred or suspended sentence and have a moderate to high risk of repeating their crimes from living within 1,000 feet of any school, church, park or daycare center. It would affect about a 130 Montanans, according to the state Department of Corrections. The current law only restricts the 20 or so high risk offenders from living “in the proximity” of any school, church, park or daycare. The ACLU objected to residency restrictions for sex offenders on constitutional grounds and because it believes they do not serve as a deterrent. The union representing probation and parole officers, and the Department of Corrections objected to the 1,000-foot rule for more pragmatic reasons. “A thousand feet, as you well know, is a little over three football fields, and in some Montana communities, this is a big problem,” said Pam Bunke, an administrator for the Department of Corrections. She added, “Sometimes the most supporting environment for the defender where he’ll have the least risk of reoffense is something that is within the 1,000 feet” of such a facility. Ron Silvers of the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Association said the law was a waste of time and money. He said the state would be better served directing its energy toward hiring more probation and parole officers. “I believe that this bill is extremely well intentioned,” Silvers said. “I do not believe that it will prove effective.” Squires said she was surprised how much opposition there was to her “innocuous little bill.” She said after the hearing that she was willing to reconsider the 1,000-foot rule for rural communities but didn’t think it would be an issue in larger cities. “I don’t want them in a field somewhere putting up a tent,” Squires said. As for Peters’ case, Bunke acknowledged that Douglas should not have been able to move so close to a daycare. “It’s in his best interest to move,” she said. “I worry about my children,” Peters told the committee during testimony. “I worry about this man, too. He lives so close, he could just look out his window and see the kids. And, you know, that’s just a temptation that I don’t think anyone in this position should have.” The committee took no immediate action on the measure. The bill is Senate Bill 18.