700 registered sex offenders concentrated in few LI communities

The sex offender trailer is located on the

The sex offender trailer is located on the property of the county sheriff's impound and police academy in Westhampton. (Mar. 11, 2013) (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Nearly 700 registered sex offenders considered moderate or high risk to repeat the crime are concentrated in just a handful of low-income and working-class communities across Long Island.

The problem is especially acute in Suffolk, which as of yesterday had about twice the number of Level 2 and 3 offenders as Nassau, according to the latest statistics. Experts said Suffolk's lower population density allows for more housing prospects for offenders away from schools and other places they are prohibited from living near.

As of Monday, there were 36,442 sex offenders on the state registry, a number that includes 11,617 who have been deported, are out of the state or are incarcerated. The registry publicly identifies only Level 2 and 3 offenders. Level 1 offenders -- which make up more than a third of the state's total number of offenders -- are considered low risk for recidivism. Suffolk, the fourth most populous county in the state, has the eighth highest number of total offenders.


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More than half of Suffolk's 995 offenders -- 536 -- are Level 1. In addition, there are 294 Level 2 and 159 Level 3. The designations for six are pending. Nassau has 535 in total: 299 Level 1s, 168 Level 2s, 61 Level 3s, and seven are pending.

Sex offenders on Long Island live in shelters or apartments on their own or in their own homes with family members. Concentrations of sex offenders can occur because of factors such as affordable rentals and the availability of public transportation. Clusters inevitably develop in less-affluent areas with less political clout, experts and residents said. But those who live in these communities said that this is unfair and that they fear that concentrations of sex offenders leave their neighborhoods at risk.

"I don't think it's fair for just one place to become a dumping ground. . . . We're trying to maintain a community with certain standards for our families and children," said Barbara Borum, an executive board member of the Hempstead Coordinating Council of Civic Associations. Borum lives in Hempstead Village, which according to a Newsday analysis of the state registry has one of the highest concentrations of offenders in the county: 38, or 0.71 offenders for every 1,000 residents. In the analysis, communities are identified by census tract rather than mailing address.

Some experts see benefits to clustering, noting that offenders who live in proximity to one another are easy to monitor and can offer each other the kind of social support that can lead to more stable lives. "Clustering works," said Bill O'Leary, a licensed social worker with a doctorate in clinical psychology who works with sex offenders as well as sex crime victims. "The data shows an offender's best chance at not reoffending is if they have stable housing and employment."

 

Residency restrictions

Housing sex offenders has been a focus of debate across the United States.

States and local municipalities began enacting residency restrictions in the late 1990s, not long after the passage of the federal Megan's Law, which required sex offenders to register their addresses and that communities be notified of that information. The law was named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed in 1994 by a neighbor with prior sexual assault convictions.

By 2007, hundreds of municipalities and 30 states had residency restrictions ranging from 500 feet to 1 mile from schools, playgrounds and other areas where children congregate. However, in recent years, some of these restrictions have been overturned in court.

New York State's residency restriction, which bans convicted offenders from living within 1,000 feet "of a school or other facility caring for children," applies only to those on parole or probation who are Level 3 -- deemed the highest risk to reoffend -- or those on parole whose victims were under 18 years old.

Suffolk also has a residency restriction law passed in 2006 that prohibits sex offenders from living within a quarter-mile of the property lines of schools, licensed day care centers, nurseries, playgrounds, amusement parks, or the residence or place of employment of the victims of their crime. That law is being challenged in court by Duane Moore, a Level 3 sex offender who served 19 years in prison for first-degree rape.

Nassau's residency restriction -- which banned all sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, 500 feet of a park or 2,000 feet from the residence or place of employment of the victims of their crime -- was struck down in Nassau's First District Court in 2011 as being superseded by the state law. But in September an appellate court reversed the ruling, noting that the state had no intent to "prohibit localities from adopting laws concerning residency restrictions for sex offenders who are no longer on probation, [or] parole supervision."

Since October 2006, several months after Suffolk and Nassau enacted their residency laws, the number of Level 2 and 3 sex offenders in those counties has decreased from 1,283 to 678. The drop coincides with generally lower crime rates, a lack of housing and the 2007 adoption of a state civil confinement law allowing for the indefinite institutionalization of dangerous sex offenders, experts said.

But critics of residency laws say that, while they may serve the intended purpose of driving offenders out of neighborhoods, they also result in offenders becoming homeless or going underground. They also say residency restrictions can contribute to clustering.

Sex offender concentrations have long existed across Long Island. But they emerged as an issue in Suffolk in the wake of protests over trailers in Riverhead and Westhampton that began housing homeless sex offenders in 2007. With a shortage of men's shelters, community uproar at housing the men at motels and a quest to keep them out of residential areas, the trailers were proposed as a temporary solution. Officials said they would be regularly moved between industrial areas around the county until the offenders found housing. But the trailers stayed, and local officials complained about having high concentrations of offenders in their communities.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone dismantled the trailers over Memorial Day weekend as part of a new Community Protection Act (CPA) passed by the county legislature in February. The 26 men living in them were to be moved to motels and homeless shelters throughout the county, no more than one offender per location, Bellone said.

"We've overburdened these communities for much longer than any community should have to bear," he said then.

 

Unevenly distributed

But there are communities across Long Island -- many of which are less affluent -- that have been hosting disproportionate numbers of sex offenders for years.

Gordon Heights has 11 offenders, or 2.72 for every 1,000 residents. Wyandanch has 12, or 1.03 for every 1,000 residents. Neighboring Coram has 43 offenders -- 1.10 for every 1,000 residents -- with some living as roommates in the same homes, according to interviews and a Newsday analysis of the Level 2 and Level 3 offenders on the New York State Sex Offender Registry as of Nov 22. By comparison, Dix Hills has one offender -- or 0.04 offenders for every 1,000 residents -- and Cold Spring Harbor has none.

"I don't want them here," said Central Islip resident Peaches Davis, 37, a mother of two. "Why don't they try to put them in the rich areas? Why do they try to sacrifice the middle class here?" Central Islip is home to 22 offenders, or 0.64 for every 1,000 residents.

"Even before the trailers, it's been an issue," said Legis. Kate Browning, whose district includes Gordon Heights. "But whether it's a sex offender or a gang member or any kind of criminal, we can't tell them where they can and cannot live. I wish we could, but we can't."

In Nassau, Lakeview has six offenders -- 1.07 for every 1,000 residents -- while Roosevelt has 15 offenders, 0.92 for every 1,000 residents. Nearby Garden City has three offenders, or 0.84 per 1,000 residents. More than 100 communities on Long Island, including larger areas such as East Northport and Massapequa Park, have no offenders.

"When you're in a community that's not as affluent as some of the other communities, you're going to get more of them," said John Sicignano, 56, president of the Mastic Park Civic Association in Mastic. Mastic Beach, Mastic and Shirley house 36 sex offenders, or an average of 0.69 for every 1,000 residents. "[Social services is] not going to send them to Setauket or Dix Hills."

County officials say the Social Services department places offenders wherever approved shelters without families are located.

Asked what the county can do to address the concentrations of sex offenders in certain communities, Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said in an email that the purpose of the Community Protection Act is to "ensure public safety of all residents of Suffolk County by monitoring and verifying locations of all sex offenders in the County" and that it "provides the toughest and most comprehensive monitoring and verification program in the nation."

But with the relocation of homeless offenders, some residents in areas with high concentrations of offenders worry that even more will be settling in their communities.

"Areas that were already saturated should not have gotten any," said Sicignano, who said he is angry that no notifications are being made to communities and that locations in which offenders are placed are not known to the public. The county has stated that state social services law prohibits officials from disclosing where the homeless are placed.

 

'Sex offender shuffle'

The state registry, though updated daily, according to a spokeswoman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, has been unable to keep up with the continuous relocations of the homeless offenders.

O'Leary, who works with about 65 sex offenders who must see him as part of their parole, said he has clients who had been living in the trailers who have been placed in high-concentration areas such as Coram.

O'Leary, who calls the program the "sex offender shuffle," said some are being placed in locations that are in violation of the county's residency restriction law, putting offenders near schools and day care centers.

As with the trailers, these offenders are told to leave the area during the day, said Suffolk County spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter.

"So where do they go then?" O'Leary said. "So it's better for them to wander around in the supermarket and wander aimlessly than be in a fixed location?"

He said he has clients who have lost jobs and knows of others -- such as a recovering crack addict who was placed in a home where he could easily obtain crack -- who have violated their parole because of the relocations.

"They want to make as many [offenders] homeless as possible and then they want to make it so difficult to be homeless that they violate and go back to jail," O'Leary said.

Schneider said in a statement that the purpose of the Community Protection Act "is to protect and provide public safety for the innocent families throughout Suffolk County, not to serve convicted sex offenders."

Baird-Streeter described the weekly placements as "continual movement" and said it is to prevent clustering, with only one offender at each location. She said as of last week there were 22 homeless sex offenders seeking emergency shelter. According to Newsday's analysis, 47 of the 52 Long Island offenders listed as homeless on the registry are in Suffolk, six of whom had been living in the trailers. Of those from the trailers, five are living in the high concentration areas of Coram, Wyandanch and Mastic Beach, according to the registry.

Residents said working-class communities again are likely to take on a good number of the homeless offenders, putting children at risk. "My kids are just as important as kids anywhere else," Sicignano said.

Suffolk's residency restrictions play a big role in where offenders live, O'Leary said.

"Most guys in Coram wouldn't be there if they weren't restricted on where they could live," he said.

Coram is the most obvious example of a community with a high concentration of sex offenders -- 29 live within a four-block area. Clusters were created by the actions of the landlord Mary Dodson, who rented to sex offenders believing they would be good tenants with steady social service checks to pay rent, and parole and probation officials to keep them in line.

 

Affecting the neighborhood

Coram resident Lourdes Mooney, 42, who has two children, said she doesn't let her children walk around the neighborhood or go to local parks to play. Instead she will take them -- and their bikes -- in her car and drive them to a park "where I feel they'll be safer."

In Brookhaven, after approval of a town "anti-clustering" law that mandates no more than two convicted sex offenders per single-family home, sex offenders are spread out among other types of ex-felons.

But a state parole spokesman said having offenders together "allows for more intensive vigilance of their movements."

Concentrations can be good -- and bad, said Elizabeth Jeglic, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice associate professor of psychology who specializes in the assessment and treatment of sex offenders. "They get social support. They understand what other people are going through and they're away from those who don't understand them," she said. "On the other hand, you want them to reintegrate and it's more difficult to reintegrate into society and there can be negative influences."

A sex offender living in one of the Coram houses who asked to be identified by his initials, D.B., said sex offenders are conscious of how they are portrayed in the media and will monitor each other's behavior. He said he felt "blessed" to have found the residence, the address of which he said was given to him by his parole officer. A spokesman for state parole said officers monitor offenders on parole and approve their housing, but do not place them in housing.

"There's no harassment by neighbors," said the 55-year-old Coram resident who was convicted of sexually abusing two children in 2007 and served 2 years in prison. He is on parole until 2014.

Other offenders report different experiences.

Because of the state registry, residents can find offenders' addresses, and community notifications are sent out by school districts as well as neighborhood organizations. Several offenders said they are regularly harassed. Joseph Wolm, 38, of Mattituck, said he was threatened by a man with a knife while waiting for a train. "He said, 'No one would care if I killed you,' " Wolm said.

 

Recidivism relatively low

Many residents fear sex offenders, believing they are highly likely to reoffend.

A 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found sex crime recidivism rates for sex offenders for the first three years following their release was 5.3 percent -- significantly lower than recidivism rates for other types of convictions such as robbery. A study conducted by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on inmates released in 2009 found that among sex offenders, 5 percent or less committed a new felony within three years compared with 9.6 percent of all parolees who recommitted felonies. A 2007 state sex offender management grant study found that from 2005 to 2006, 94 percent of those charged with sexual offenses had no prior sex crime convictions.

Laura Ahearn, whose Stony Brook-based group Parents for Megan's Law is receiving $2.7 million over three years from Suffolk as part of the Community Protection Act to help monitor sex offenders, said other studies show recidivism rates climbing over longer periods post-incarceration. Citing a national number of more than 700,000 registered sex offenders, she said, "that means there's 35,000 more victims, even with a 5 percent recidivism rate. So we can't lose sight of what we're trying to accomplish here by focusing on sex offender recidivism rates."

O'Leary said he knows of two cases of recidivism among the offenders he's worked with since 1995.

O'Leary and others who work with sex offenders say that's one problem with residency restrictions -- they are predicated on the notion that sex offenders are likely to reoffend and therefore must be closely monitored. Offenders, they say, already are heavily monitored by parole.

O'Leary said residency restrictions do not differentiate between types of sex offenders, with those who committed crimes against adults having to abide by the same limitations regarding places where children gather. He also points to statistics that reveal a vast majority of sexual abuse victims knew their abuser before the crime.

A 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report found 86 percent of reported sexual assault cases involved victims who knew their offenders. Instead of spending money on monitoring programs such as those in the CPA, O'Leary recommends more investment in education and awareness of sex abuse in the home.

Legislation restricting sex offender movement is popular with voters, however, even if lawmakers can't back up their effectiveness with data, Jeglic said.

"Who wants a sex offender as their next-door neighbor?" she asked. "It's very much that the public wants these types of laws, not a matter of whether they're effective."

 

Argument for setting rules

Ahearn acknowledges the limitations of residency restrictions. "Residency restriction laws are not going to prevent sexual offenses from occurring," she said. "However, what they can do is set out what the rules are going to be in a community. . . . You don't want an offender in a position where they can have daily eye-contact view of potential victims."

Some residents say sex offenders are unfairly maligned and should be treated humanely. "I don't have any problems with them," said a Coram resident who asked to be identified as Angela T. "I just watch myself and watch the baby."

But Mooney believes restrictions should be even tougher.

"If they did something, especially when they hurt a child, just because they did their time, doesn't mean they're not going to do it again," she said.

Larry Menzie, a former parole officer who is a social worker and president-elect of the state Alliance of Sex Offender Service Providers, said the most dangerous sex offenders -- those who are Level 3 or have been deemed a "sexual predator, a sexually violent offender or a predicate sex offender" -- have multiple layers of supervision. They are tracked by GPS, regularly given polygraph tests and are subject to random address checks and surveillance by parole officers. In addition to the restrictions placed on all parolees -- such as not being allowed to be in the company of others with criminal records -- sex offenders are often forbidden to have cameras on their cellphones and can only use the Internet at approved sites that have filters.

"People try to make it appear that sex offenders are running wild in the community," he said. "Sex offenders are not let out of prison and wished good luck. They are supervised at a much higher level than most parolees."

O'Leary and Menzie said residency laws serve to destabilize offenders who are trying to build support networks. An offender who cannot find stable housing -- and therefore stable employment -- or who is pushed away from family is more likely to reoffend, experts said.

Wolm said he was rejected from more than a dozen housing options -- including one because it was too close to a "park" that consisted of a small plot of grass with a bench and a flagpole. Residency restrictions are "misguided," he said, but Wolm, who was convicted of molesting a friend's 9-year-old son, said he can appreciate residents' concerns.

"It's evil what I did, no doubt about it," he said. "I'm the one people are looking to hang and crucify, and I understand it."

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