Prof. Yabut is biting his tongue and standing on his head this morning, trying to keep this first glimpse at the workings of the Schenectady County Council to Prevent Sex Offenses objective and non-hysterical. Please excuse us if we occasionally lapse into polemics or preaching.
On August 23rd, 2007 (see our prior post), the Schenectady County [NY] Legislature took a step back from the draconian sex offender residency laws it had passed in June (as we reported here). However, rather than totally rescinding those laws and fully studying the issues, it chose to continue to impose a 1500-foot residence exclusion zone (around schools, parks, playgrounds, and child care facilities) on all Level 2 and 3 sex offenders, with current residences grandfathered-in. See “Law to protect kids is altered Sex offenders already in county allowed to stay put” (Schenectady Daily Gazette, Aug. 24, 2007; reprinted).
In addition, the Legislature voted to create the Schenectady County Council to Prevent Sex Offenses, a large committee composed of various office holders and community representatives, which was given the job of studying the overall issue of preventing sex offenses against children, and ordered to report back in 90 days. The Legislature would then have 30 days to act upon the Report.
To be frank, a lot of observers were a bit surprised by the cart-before-the horse(‘s ass) nature of the resolution creating the Sex Offense Council (see our prior post). It’s large size (purportedly over 30 members) and short duration seemed to condemn the project to the realm of futility or pathos. But, the public and public-minded civil servants and leaders had little choice but to wait and see. Well, last week — almost two full months into the 90 day mandate period — we got our first chance to watch the SOC process in action.
- On October 16, 2007, Duanesburg Town Supervisor Rene Merrihew received a letter telling her that the first meeting of SOC would be at 4 PM Friday, October 19, 2007, and she informed the Rotterdam [NY] Internet Forum.
- On October 17, JoAnn Schrom, Administrator of the Rotterdam Internet Forum emailed Susan Savage asking for a list of SOC members and inquiring whether the public could attend. Leg. Chair Savage replied that she had forwarded the request to the County Manager, Kathleen Rooney. On the afternoon of October, 18, Ms. Rooney wrote to Ms. Schrom, saying that “the first meeting will be held Friday at 4pm in the McChesney Room of the Central Library” and that “the public is certainly welcome to attend.” She added thather assistant would forward the list of SOC members.
- A list of SOC members was sent to the Moderator of the Rotterdam Info Internet Forum on Thursday, October 18, by Jason Cuthbert, Assistant to the County Manager. Below the fold, at the bottom of this post, I’ve pasted in the 26 names supplied by the County. That may be the full Council.
- It should be noted that there are no outside experts on sex offender management or treatment on the list. In addition, no Legislator who spoke out against having residency restrictions has been named to the Council, which does include Susan Savage, the Legislative Chair, and main proponent of the restrictions. Nor was any member of the public who spoke against the laws included. Instead, at least two of the three “Community Representatives” — Jeffrey Parry and Olivia Adams, local NAACP President, were strong supporters of the law at public hearings.
There was no mention of the meeting in any local media, and I had not recently visited the Rotterdam Forum. However, thanks to a phone call from a friend in rural Schenectady County, who was told about the meeting by a member of SOC, I learned around noon on Friday, October 19, that the first SOC meeting would be held at 4 PM that day. When I arrived for the Meeting shortly before 4 PM, there were no other members of the public/community there. Carl Strock, columnist for the (Schenectady) Daily Gazette appeared just before Mr. Gardner called the meeting to order. Here is what Carl wrote about the SOC’s first meeting:
Carl Strock: The View from Here (Schenectady Sunday Gazette, October 21, 2007, B1)
In case you’re wondering how the 29-member task force is doing that was created by the Schenectady County Legislature to make recommendations on sex-offender laws, after the Legislature itself stepped in a big cow pie over the issue, I can tell you it’s doing about as well as its parent body. It started off on Friday with a meeting at the county library that was not announced to the public and was therefore illegal, and the members droned and rambled aimlessly for an hour, the dominant voice being that of a soft-spoken Scotia resident who is the most fanatical on the subject of sex offenders, while assorted probation officers, politicians and bureaucrats basically listened.
Listened to what? To the proposition that we don’t want sex offenders in our community. Mixed in with some reports on how things are done now.
The legislature gave this task force 90 days from Aug. 23 to come up with recommendations on as many as 14 possible local laws to deal with the danger, largely imaginary, posed by those who were once convicted of sex offenses.
At the rate they’re going, I don’t see how they can accomplish their objective in less than 90 years.
When I returned home from the meeting, I put this Comment up at the Rotterdam Internet Forum, describing the event:
Carl Strock and I were the only two members of the public attending the Meeting (there was only room for many a dozen people to observe). Not even half of the committee attended. No judges were there, nor was [Schenectady] Mayor Stratton (who sent an aide).
There was no apparent organization. County Attorney Christopher Gardner chaired the meeting. Carl Strock asked whether the requirements of the Public Meetings laws had been met regarding Notice of the event; he was not given a direct answer. With no introduction or suggestion of future structure for the meetings or the group, Gardner immediately asked the group to discuss Notification — giving no summary of what the issue might be, nor of what problems or benefits or costs increased notification might entail.
Most discouraging is the fact that Community member Jeffrey Parry basically monopolized the discussion and questioning. He made it clear that “we don’t want them in the community.” GPS monitoring is not enough. Parry wanted to know if some form of secured housing could be built for sex offenders, at least for a couple of transitional years. He said “we’re just wasting our time,” if we’re going to allow sex offenders to come and live in our neighborhoods.
A member of DA Carney’s staff. who runs the special victims section, tried to inject a bit of common sense (on the need for a place to live, job, treatment, etc.) and Rene Merrihew also tried a few practical questions, but the meeting was quickly steered back into the ozone.
At this pace, I’d estimate that another 600 or 700 meetings will be needed to cover the many points mandated in the Resolution. Drafting and voting on the issues might take another couple of years. Based solely on the first meeting, there is no reason to expect a useful or enlightened report.
For more detail and perspective, see this account by Rene Merrihew, the Supervisor of the Town of Duanesburg, a member of SOC (who, for instance, insisted that official minutes be kept of the Meeting). I later added a second Comment at the Forum, which concluded:
When Rene asked [County Attorney] Gardner what will happen when people getting out of prison come back and can’t live in the City, he replied that “they presumably had residences when they were arrested,” and therefore — due to grandfathering — they could go back to those residences, if they lived there prior to June 2007. That is an interesting interpretation of the law that I would expect to hear from sex offender advocates and lawyers in the future, but I doubt that Ms. Savage would agree to that interpretation of Legislative Intent.
Clearly, this is a sad start for those who had hoped the Committee would make a good faith attempt to examine residency restrictions. If, however, we had hoped to be able to deride its process and findings, it is a grand beginning.
At the foot of this posting, I have included an excerpt from a Daily Gazette article of Aug. 24, 2007, listing many of the issues and potential laws that the Council has been told to study and report back on. I’ve also included some of the statistics about Sex Offenders in Schenectady County that I were mentioned at the SOC Meeting.
All observers and participants would surely agree that Community Representative Jeffrey Parry, of Scotia, was the most active participant in the first SOC meeting. He first came to our attention at the Public Hearings on the sex offender laws, where he supported strong measures. The Daily Gazette article “Citizens speak on sex offender laws” (Aug. 23, 2007) noted, for example:
“Scotia resident Jeff Parry, who said the law should remain. To address [Niskayuna Supervisor Luke] Smith’s concerns [about the restrictions causing sex offenders to go underground], he said convicts should be punished with 25-year prison sentences if they stop reporting their address.
“We need effective counseling, we need to monitor them and we need to keep them away from society,”
This morning, Mr. Parry was kind enough to leave a thoughtful Comment here at f/k/a, at our earlier posting about the amended laws and establishment of the Council. To assure a broader audience for his Comments, I’m reposting them here:
Comment of Jeff Parry: The Schenectady laws were indeed a flawed attempt to deal with a serious problem. My personal feeling is that the perspective that is advocated in this website is probably mostly correct. Unfortunately the approaches advocated here do nothing to relieve the anxiety of parents or property owners. Rightly or wrongly, the only thing that will remove the stress from the neighborhood is the removal of the offender.
Those who frequent this website may feel that this point of view is hysterical overreaction and ignorant of the facts but it is also the reality on the ground in the affected neighborhoods. A sex offender in a neighborhood leads inevitably to the decline of the neighborhood. Among my peers the checking of the sex offender registry has become a regular part of life and whether it makes sense from an intellectual perspective or not, no one with children who has the means to do otherwise is going to buy property or move into a neighborhood where there are sex offenders.
I don’t know if this ‘irrational fear’ can coexist with a rational approach toward helping/containing sex offenders but I am hopeful that the newly formed “Schenectady County Council to Prevent Sex Offenses” will explore the issue.
Here are my first thoughts in response to Jeff Parry’s Comment:
Reply by David Giacalone: I very much appreciate your taking the time to help us understand your position, Jeff. We both want to prevent the sexual abuse of children. We appear to disagree on how to do so effectively and lawfully. I believe that our overall approach needs to take into account the benefits that our society receives from enacting laws based on practicality, experience and expertise, rather than simply fear, and from living within the State and federal Constitutions — restrictions on majority rule that are needed to assure that every member of society receives basic civil rights.
Unlike other advocates of strong sex offender residency restrictions, you speak in a calm voice, and I appreciate your demeanor. I have also tried to avoid using the word “hysteria” when talking about proponents of such laws, because the word connotes uncontrollable laughter or crying or raised voices. But, calmness doesn’t necessarily mean that the fear behind the residency restrictions isn’t excessive and perhaps irrational. I don’t deny that “the reality on the ground in the affected neighborhoods” is one of great fear and concern with sex offenders. But, public policy can’t be based on overblown fears of some members of the public, and the desire to “do something” can’t possibly become an excuse for doing something that is likely to be ineffective and counterproductive.
I believe that a fair reading of the literature on this topic makes it clear that your preoccupation is far greater than is warranted by the facts, by experience, and by common sense. The materials cited and discussed in our series of f/k/a sex offender posts convinces me that there is virtually no connection between the block or neighborhood where a sex offender lives and whether he/she reoffends or who the victim is likely to be. (The only connection seems to be that the sex offender is not likely to choose a stranger for a victim who lives nearby.) Furthermore, banishing sex offenders from society and treating them like a group of sub-humans with no rights seems far more likely to increase tendencies toward recidivism than to reduce it.
When a child has an irrational fear — bogeymen under the bed or in the closet, for instance — the parent’s job is to reassure the child that he or she is safe and to provide an emotional comfort zone. It surely isn’t to underscore the fear and to take drastic, unnecessary actions to banish the bogeymen. When adults have excessive fears, they actually make things worse for their children, who perceive that fear and their parents’ powerlessness, and feel especially vulnerable.
You seem to be asking your political leaders, and the rest of the public, to take the fears of your “peers” as an unchangeable given and to overact-in-kind in order to placate those fears. My hope is that — for the sake of your children and your own peace of mind — you and your highly-concerned neighbors take another look at the facts and realize that your fear of the stranger-predator living on your block is miss-directed and excessive (see for example, this, this and that posting). The fact that the Constitution won’t let you permanently banish them should be another factor helping you to “learn to live with it” — to realign those fears and instead focus (as Patty Wetterling suggests) on things that a family can do avoid sexual abuse. In addition, the reality that sex offenders live in every neighborhood (and always have) should help reduce the fear that your property values are going to plummet should one of them move or continue to reside near you.
Sexually abusing a child is a dreadful crime. But, we know that the crime is perpetrated far more by relatives and acquaintances with access to children than by the stranger — especially the stranger next door. Our children are far more likely to be harmed by the driver on a cellphone or the addict seeking funds to buy drugs than by a registered sex offender who lives in the neighborhood. Talking about keeping “them” away from society will get the Sex Offender Council nowhere. You are not doing “the Community” a favor by suggesting unconstitutional, impractical, highly expensive “solutions”. For a voice to be listened to, it needs to be much more than calm and unhysterical. It needs to be reasonable and well-reasoned.
For more info, click for a list of f/k/a sex offender posts.
update (October 25, 2007): The Daily Gazette‘s Carl Strock returns to the topic of the Sex Offender Council in his column today, entitled “Sex-offender task force: stacked deck ” (you can find it reprinted here). Carl makes a lot of good points, including this paragraph:
“No Richard Hamill or other professional who actually knows anything, nor anyone else who has any qualms or misgivings about the measures that the Legislature itself had to back away from. Keeping in mind that Susan Savage didn’t back away from them. She was one of two legislators who voted to keep them in place. Meaning she simply picked people who agree with her own hard-line position.”
He also tells us that the third “Community Representative,” Karen House “told me by telephone that she is a Niskayuna mother who is ‘concerned about the dangers that predators pose to children,’ who fully supports the laws the Legislature passed, and who simply spoke to Susan Savage about serving on the task force. “
Accused of not consulting “stakeholders” and experts, Legislative Chair Susan Savage has set up an advisory Committee of cheerleaders (including teammates cheering themselves on) and of rival elected officials who she surely hopes to either co-opt or put on the spot politically. As Carl puts it, she’s created, “a stacked deck. A bunch of fellow enthusiasts in promoting the myth of predators lurking behind trees waiting to snatch children from playgrounds. Trying to scare people out of their wits. ” Ms. Savage (and her purported co-strategist County Attorney Chris Gardner — who is forced to play the role of ignorant frontman and Stooge to keep his job) must have some sort of Game Plan in mind. Watching it unfold will surely not be edifying. Once again, I can only hope that a group of reasonable people will offer the Sex Offender Council an alternative plan, and that a good Minority Report will be issued — even if unofficially — for the public to consider.
[On a related note, see this article from the Sun Journal of Lewiston, Maine: "Shadowed by the past: Should we care that laws against sex offenders in Maine may have gone too far? Even some law-and-order types are now saying yes," Oct. 21, 2007; via Prof Yung at Sex Crimes]
update (Dec. 6, 2007): Carl Strock’s Dec. 4, 2007, column in the Daily Gazette included two important blurbs::
RED-FACE DEPT. Recently I took to task the Schenectady County task force on sexoffenders for holding their first meeting without any announcement to the public, which I confi – dently declared to be illegal.
I stand corrected by no less an authority than Bob Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, who assures me that as an advisory body, the county task force is not subject to the Open Meetings Law. I apologize.
DEAD DEADLINE: Speaking of Schenectady’s task force on sex offenders, you can forget about its 90-day deadline for reporting back to the county Legislature, a deadline that has already passed.
County Attorney Chris Gardner, who chairs the task force, says it hasn’t even met since the first unproductive one-hour session, but no matter —it will meet again soon, he promises.
I guess the deadline just doesn’t mean anything, despite being part of the law that created the body.
As for whether Gardner will let us, the public, know about future meetings so we can listen in, despite not being legally obliged to do so, I could not elicit a commitment.
Happily, over at the Rotterdam, NY, Internet Forum, Duanesburg’s Town Supervisor, Rene Merrihew, who is an ex officio member of the advisory Council, reassured Carl that she would let him know about the next meeting.
update (Oct. 26, 2007): A truly scary Halloween scenario from today’s Schenectady Daily Gazette — an All-Susan-Savage Sex Offender Council.