City should help, not shun, counseling center

Concord has issued what is tantamount to an eviction order on RTT Associates, a counseling program at 2½ Beacon St. The zoning board and city council should immediately review that capricious and arbitrary decision in the interest of fairness, transparency and public safety. RTT had operated without incident at this site since 2005 and won a special exception to the zoning ordinance in 2011. It was established 30 years ago.

Zoning Administrator Craig Walker claims that a client of RTT broke into a home and assaulted a child in a residence near RTT. Assuming this horrendous crime took place, and it probably did, we all deeply sympathize with that young victim and her family. However, the accused man faces two felony charges with possible enhanced penalties. The justice system will handle him in a fair and rigorous way.

But let’s back up. I am unaware of any way the city would lawfully know if the accused man is or was a client of RTT. Furthermore, the defendant is in jail awaiting trial months from now and remains innocent under the law. If he were a client of RTT, and if he were convicted, there is no cause-and-effect relationship between RTT’s mission and these crimes. The locations of the alleged crime scene and the treatment center are coincidental. RTT is not a residential treatment program.

Eviction endangers others

Yes, part of RTT’s mission is to help ex-offenders succeed in the community. Group and individual counseling sessions stabilize them and help keep them from re-offending. But many other clients of RTT are people under stress who have never broken the law, including women and children who have suffered from abuse and battery. This revocation of a zoning waiver places at risk all the clients of RTT, since the agency has short notice to find a suitable office space in Concord.

Dozens of peer-reviewed recidivism studies show that sex offenders are a highly diverse group. Most of them pose little or no threat to the community, especially if they are closely supervised and supported through a program like RTT. The myth of the mean stranger often drives knee-jerk policy and zoning enforcement decisions, but most sex offenses are committed by people who have never been arrested for such a crime before. They typically know their victim well, often a loved one.

The criminology literature shows that between 3 and 5 percent of all sex offenders commit a new sex offense in their first three years back in the community. After that the recidivism rate plummets. For those in active treatment, the rate is lower still. Moreover, the re-incarceration rate for other felons is 10 times higher than former sex offenders.

It makes no sense to drive this counseling agency out of town or out of business and deny its clients critical services. Would nearby mental health programs or law firms be similarly held in violation of Concord’s zoning rules the instant one of their clients was accused of a crime? I would hope not.

A unique Concord challenge

The state capital has a huge concentration of people who have lived at the prison or the state hospital. Helping them reintegrate into society, instead of shunning them, is one of our unique challenges.

Last week’s decision to grant an extension to appeal Walker’s decision to revoke the city’s zoning waiver was fair and prudent. The landlord and RTT should appeal. Furthermore, fairness dictates that the zoning board should stay its decision, appoint an advisory panel to examine the facts and make its recommendation to the board. The city must be concerned with the safety of all its citizens.

Good public policy is adopted when it is transparent and all the facts and the concomitant effects are assessed. Public safety did not compel this rash decision made in private without hearing from all interested parties. If the zoning board makes this decision, then all facts and effects will be available to the public. Then, the safety of all will be maintained.

(Thomas L. Adams Jr. is a board member of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, which seeks a system of justice that protects the community while promoting the rehabilitation of offenders and the well-being of inmate families.)

By THOMAS L. ADAMS Jr. For the Monitor
Friday, July 5, 2013
(Published in print: Saturday, July 6, 2013)