By Jason Schock
The City Council last week by the smallest possible margin voted down a proposal that would restrict the distance a registered sexual predator can live in proximity to a school or licensed day care facility.
Meeting in regular session Jan. 4 at City Hall, Mayor Jerry Oliver cast the tie-breaking “nay” vote, sending councilman Mike Dougherty’s motion, seconded by Steve Scholl, to the cutting room floor. Council members Judy Murphy and Jim Wisdom also supported the drafting of an ordinance, but Don Ferguson, Angie Nolte, John Vaughn and Anthony Nussbaum all cast “nay” votes, knotting it up at four apiece and forcing the mayor to decide the proposal’s fate. Mayor Oliver didn’t elaborate at the time of the vote, but later intimated that such legislation would, in his view, prove ineffective in Falls City.
“I can understand how (proponents) feel,” he said. “I just don’t think it would change anything. I felt that there should be a state law on the books.”
Prior to taking the vote, Joan Stoller, of East 21st Street, the leader of the ordinance movement who first approached the Council Dec. 7, spoke on the merits of residence restriction legislation. Mrs. Stoller was spurred into action when a registered sex offender moved into her family’s neighborhood and in close proximity to “Little Bees Daycare,” a facility established within the last year by owner and operator Steph Beckner.
Then, in one of the more surreal scenes you’ll find inside City Hall (post-Jim Smith era, of course) in Falls City or elsewhere, a rebuttal was delivered by a recently registered sex offender, former radio announcer Matthew Leaf. His argument was pragmatic and supported by empirical and observational evidence, but it followed an introduction in which Leaf proclaimed himself the new registered sex offender in Mrs. Stoller’s and “Little Bees” neighborhood. It took courage, to be sure, but it also shackled minds to the messenger and provoked indifference — if not disdain — to the message.
The 42-year-old is less than a year into a four-year probation term for a felony conviction of possession of child pornography. He is required to register as a sex offender under Nebraska law for 25 years after pleading guilty to the one count, in exchange for three others being dismissed by prosecutors. Leaf was arrested and jailed in the fall of 2014 after investigators with the State Attorney General’s Office, along with FC Police, served a search warrant at his Falls City apartment, seizing a computer that allegedly contained graphic videos. The investigation was conducted over the course of a full calendar year, according to Court documents.
Public revulsion nonetheless, Leaf presented a solid argument, supported by evidence gathered throughout the country that overwhelmingly suggests residence restriction policies do little or nothing to prevent or reduce sexual violence and/or deter or reduce recidivism.
“Mentioning feel-good laws – that accomplish absolutely nothing,” Leaf said. “There is no research that shows the proximity of a sex offender to a day care or school increases the likelihood that they will re-offend.
“The vast majority of new sex offenses will be committed by someone not now on the sexual offender registry – something along the lines of 90-95 percent. Protecting children from sexual abuse is a wonderful thing. But this ordinance doesn’t do that.”
Scholl, who questioned why a registered sexual offender would return to the community where he (95 percent are committed by males) committed the crime or crimes — “not too bright,” he said — asked Leaf to consider the children’s perspective.
“How do these children feel about the sex offender coming back to their town?,” he asked. “The City should be watching out for the children.
“I agree,” Leaf said, “but preventing someone from living a certain distance from a school doesn’t prevent them from committing sexual abuse. People have cars. There is no evidence that this type of ordinance will protect children. It could be pointless, but also harmful in many respects.”
Many critics agree: Residency restriction laws they say are, in fact, feel-good legislation that at best has no effect on public safety or, at worse, makes communities less safe. Iowa, in 2002, passed perhaps the toughest residency restriction laws in the country, prohibiting child molesters from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care facility. Des Moines in 2006 took it further with their own version, adding parks, libraries, swimming pools and recreational trails to the list of protected zones. According to a report by the Des Moines Register, the number of sex offenders unaccounted for more than doubled in a span of six months as a consequence.
According to a federally funded study conducted by the Medical University of South Carolina, and provided to the U.S. Dept. of Justice in 2010, over a 10-year period between 1995, when South Carolina first implemented sex offender registration and notification, and 2005, eight percent of those registered had new charges, but only half of them were convicted. Registered offenders were not less likely to recidivate than those non-registered, but were far more likely to have charges reduced.
“South Carolina’s policy has no effect on deterring the risk of sexual recidivism, and the state’s policy does exert unintended effects on judicial decision-making with respect to adult sex crime cases.
“The net effects could be to reduce community safety by increasing the likelihood that defendants guilty of sex crimes pleaded to non-sex crimes or were acquitted altogether.”
Not that it isn’t a national epidemic, because it is: According to the US Dept. of Justice Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking, 1.8 million adolescents in the U.S. have been victims of sexual assault, yet just 30 percent of sexual assaults – and 16 percent of rapes – are reported to authorities; a staggering one in four girls are sexually abused between the ages of 12 and 17. Most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are family members – 10 percent, according to the DOJ, are strangers.
Still, sex offenses represent one percent of all arrests, according to the Center for Sexual Offender Management.
The Nebraska Legislature, to the behest of then-Governor Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning, in 2006 passed the Sexual Predator Residency Act as part of the Sexual Offender Registration Act (LB 1199) and essentially enacted guidelines for cities who chose to adopt a living restriction ordinance. It is not a statewide law. Therefore, it only applies to those cities or designated entities that pass such an ordinance.
Stoller expressing a commitment to “protecting the innocence of our city’s children” and was armed with research findings that defied the argument that such an ordinance could force people out of town, but in the end, the data conflicted with the assertion that residence restriction is needed in Falls City and might have damaged the proposal’s chance at passage. She cited McCook (0.27 percent), Nebraska City (0.43 percent) and Beatrice (0.38 percent) as three communities to enact such an ordinance and all three have higher populations, proportionately, of registered sex offenders than does Falls City (0.24 percent).
Just 10 of the community’s 4,216 citizens are registered sex offenders; half of them wouldn’t be affected by a restricted residence ordinance, as state law requires it to pertain to sexual “predators,” not sex “offenders.” A sex offender has been convicted of a crime and is required to register as a sex offender, while a sexual predator has committed an aggravated offense and victimized a person 18 years of age or younger. It once was the State Patrol’s job to differentiate the two and make a determination based on risk of recidivism. The law was amended in 2009.
Stoller quoted former Governor Heineman, who in 2006 upon LB 1199’s passage, said “feel-good legislation will not protect our children and guard them from sexual predators.”
Falls City Police Chief Duane Armbruster said he was “neither for or against” the passage of an ordinance.
“I can see pros and cons,” he said. “A lot of issues would come up. In Falls City it would be difficult; and just because a person did something wrong doesn’t mean they’re bad forever.
“But we can live with whatever you guys decide. You make the laws, I just enforce them.”
In December, Armbruster cautioned the Council.
“You’re going to find that if you make a statute, sometimes its good and sometimes it’s bad because you put more pressure on the sex offender and sometimes it drives them harder to re-offend,” he said.
According to the CSOM, the most effective type of treatment approach involves “helping offenders change unhealthy thinking patterns, understand factors that are linked to their offending, and develop effective coping skills.
“When re-entering the community, sex offenders may face many challenges that can cause their lives to be unstable, including negative public feelings, including being ostracized or victims of hostile acts, restrictions on where they can live and difficulties finding a job. The instability can put them at greater risk to re-offend.”