The Suffolk Legislature Tuesday night passed an emergency bill that supporters said will end a yearslong debate about where to house homeless sex offenders while creating the "toughest monitoring and enforcement program in the nation."
The bill will intensify monitoring of the county's 1,016 registered sex offenders and close down trailers on the East End that house 38 homeless offenders and have sparked intense community opposition. The homeless sex offenders will be dispersed to county homeless shelters throughout Suffolk, but will not be housed with families, officials said.
"Upon enactment of this law, no one will have a stronger approach than Suffolk County," said Laura Ahearn, executive director of the nonprofit to prevent child sexual abuse, Parents for Megan's Law, that will work with police on the new monitoring plan. "I do not believe there is any reason to delay enactment by even one day, let alone six weeks."
But Amol Sinha, Suffolk chapter director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, criticized lawmakers for circumventing committee hearings and debate by passing the bill as an emergency measure.
"To pass something without significant deliberation that is an issue of public concern and public safety is not only offensive, it not only is bad public policy, it is antithetical to the principles of democracy that are grounded in our Constitution," Sinha said.
Suffolk and officials nationwide have been struggling for years with the problem of housing convicted sex offenders. Backers of the bill passed Tuesday say residency restriction laws are being struck down by courts, making intensified monitoring more important.
Beginning in 2007, the county began placing homeless offenders in trailers that were to be moved to different sites around the county. But they remained on the East End, generating increasing community protests.
Suffolk County legislators in 2010 approved a plan that would have created a half-dozen mini-shelters at industrial parks spread throughout Suffolk. That also drew opposition and was never implemented.
Measures for monitoring
Tuesday, lawmakers voted 17-0, with one member absent, for the Community Protection Act. It will allow police to contract with Parents for Megan's Law for up to $2.7 million over three years to intensify checks on Suffolk's 1,016 registered sex offenders.
Megan's Law members will check offenders' addresses in person and develop smartphone applications to use in reporting registration violations.
Suffolk police officers also will visit offenders' homes regularly to verify their addresses, and file intelligence reports in order to develop more comprehensive files on the offenders.
"Though it's not perfect, it's certainly a better solution than what's in place," said Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue).
Individual county shelters would house no more than one homeless sex offender, officials said. The offenders will be required to report their location to police within an hour of checking in, and will do so by a dedicated hotline.
Wheatley Heights civic leader Sandy Thomas said she doubted the county had enough shelters to ensure that no facility housed more than one homeless sex offender. County leaders only said they were confident the goal could be met, but didn't elaborate.
"It says to me that this hasn't been thought through enough, with enough community input," Thomas said.
In submitting the emergency bill, County Executive Steve Bellone had to cite an urgent need. But his office said only that since police had crafted "the most comprehensive sex offender monitoring, verification and enforcement program in the nation," it should "be implemented without delay."
Bellone's "certificate of necessity" allowed the bill to bypass legislative committees and gave residents who attended a hastily scheduled hearing Tuesday only a few minutes to review the bill.
But many were East End residents who have complained about the homeless sex offender trailers in Riverside and Westhampton welcomed action.
"We have an opportunity to take responsibility today," said Northampton resident Brad Bender, who told lawmakers that other areas must start sharing the burden of homeless sex offenders. "It would be easy to do nothing, but these men are your constituency."
The fight over housing sex offenders
February 2007: Suffolk County begins to place homeless sex offenders in county-owned trailers that will be moved periodically around the county in an effort to better monitor them and keep them out of residential areas.
January 2009: Several hundred people at a meeting in Riverhead protest the use of a trailer as temporary shelter for nearly 20 sex offenders on the grounds of the Suffolk County Jail. All are convicted level 2 or 3 sex offenders, which means they must register for life and are deemed at the highest, or second-highest risk of reoffending.
January 2010: Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy closes two East End trailer sites and scraps a plan to put them in a converted industrial warehouse. He says Suffolk will begin a program similar to Nassau's to give homeless offenders a $90 voucher to find their own emergency housing, most likely in a motel.
May: Lawmakers cut off funding for the vouchers and instead pass legislation calling on the Social Services Department to house homeless offenders at multiple sites in the county.
Jan. 31, 2013: Suffolk police unveil a proposal that would intensify monitoring of the county's 1,016 registered sex offenders and close trailers for homeless offenders on the East End by dispersing them to shelters throughout the county.
Feb. 6: The county legislature passes the plan unanimously.