Tilton repeals its harsh sex offender code

House tables statewide ban on similar restrictions

Tilton voters today struck down their town’s ordinance barring registered sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school, park, daycare center and other unspecified places where kids gather, perhaps referring to school bus stops. The punishment for violations was harsh: $500 for the first offense, $1,500 for the second and $2,500 for the third and subsequent offenses. A public registrant bent on staying put in the wrong place could have run up a million dollar fine in a bit over a year. By my count the voice vote was approximately 35 to three.

Patricia Consentino, chair of the board of selectmen, introduced the article to repeal the quasi zoning rule and acknowledged it was unenforceable. Courts had struck down similar codes as unconstitutional.

“This is a housekeeping measure,” she told voters at Town Meeting.

Town moderator Chuck Mitchell invited me to speak as an outside expert. My op ed in favor of the warrant article had run this week in the Laconia Citizen. I explained that the Jennings v Dover and Thomas v Franklin court challenges had found these codes to be a breach of fundamental property rights. They deprived a public registrant from owning or renting most of the housing in town.

Both cities had driven out half their registrants in the first year, spawning copycat measures in Tilton, Northfield, and Boscawen. Tilton was the last to get rid of its ordinance.

Minnesota considered a Dover-style residency law, but first studied 224 sex crimes to see if the offenders ever found a victim near a playground or schoolyard. It never happened. Where the perpetrator lived was also irrelevant.

Iowa drove 42 percent of its registrants homeless in the first year of a statewide restriction. County prosecutors and social workers soon opposed the new law because it endangered the public by forcing people underground and destabilizing them. They just disappeared.

Similar groups have strongly criticized the same restrictions in New Hampshire: the State Police, the Manchester Police, Child and Family Services, the Civil Liberties Union, the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Bills sponsored by CCJR to ban them statewide have sailed through the House in three previous years, only to die to in the Senate. 

Such restrictions rely on two politically popular myths. That people convicted of sex crimes are mean strangers who watch the playground all day looking for child victims. That sending them elsewhere is the silver bullet to make us all safe. In fact, only 5 percent of registered sex offenders commit a new sex crime in the first three years after prison, the period of highest risk. The rate plummets after that.

Today a single town, Holderness, still enforces a residency ordinance, yet only two public registrants live there. Shelagh Connelly, chair of the Holderness Selectmen, told me this fall the town likes things just the way they are.

“If you want to repeal it,” she said, “you’ll have to convince our police chief to convince the voters.”

Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform wrote a bill this term to strike down all the remaining banishment codes in one swoop. HB 263, prime sponsored by Rep. Tim Robertson (D-Keene), left the House Criminal Justice Committee with a 17-0 vote of support. Only Rep. Jim Webb (R-Derry) and one of his constituents spoke against it at its January public hearing. He asked why anyone with a shred of decency would help lepers who deserve to suffer their whole lives. The bill had many supporters.

We were horrified that Webb made a successful motion this week to table the bill. The 203-106 tally probably kills HB 263. We still don’t know exactly what happened. There was no explanation, no debate on the merits of the bill.

Maybe the secrecy says that registered sex offenders have no right to transparent government. Maybe lawmakers expect them to hunker down and take what society gives them. But the real threat to kids is from people they trust: their families, babysitters, teachers, coaches, friends. Especially their friends. Other minors commit nearly half the sexual abuse against kids.

These codes aim to keep public registrants from living in any place they can afford. The ex-prisoner must rent or tent far from public transportation, employment and treatment programs.

So the person stops taking meds, leaves counseling, loses his income, loses his family. That’s how residency restrictions destabilize ex-offenders. By uprooting them. Police and victim advocates who dislike these codes know that stress and isolation are well known triggers for reoffending. Residency restrictions force people underground without protecting anyone else.