Peabody is joining the effort to restrict where the most serious of sex offenders live, work and play in the Tanner City, because currently there are no legal restrictions on their activity in the community.
The issue came to light for Mayor Ted Bettencourt after a parent emailed him a couple weeks ago, saying she saw two Level 3 sex offenders at three times that week and she wondered if the city could do something about it. That email was also later sent to School Committee members.
"Level 3" is one of three categories used by the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board and, according to state authorities, covers individuals convicted of sexual offenses who have a high likelihood to reoffend -- they are considered a danger to public safety.
There are currently 12 registered Level 3 offenders in Peabody, according to the registry board.
The Peabody mother had notified police on each occasion, but was told nothing could be done on their end as long as the men weren't breaking the law. She said the men were actually looking for cans in trash barrels and one of them made a "rude sexual comment" to her on the third night. As a result, she and another mother were filing police reports.
She said she did her own research online and discovered that a just small number of cities and towns actually have local ordinances in place to restrict sex offenders from schools, parks, children's camps, elderly faciities, etc.
"I am shocked that these predators are allowed to be near children," the woman said.
After looking into the matter himself, Bettencourt said, he was equally "shocked" to learn there were no blanket restrictions from state authorities on the activities or proximity of Level 3 offenders to schools, parks and the like.
"There has got to be something." That was Bettencourt's first reaction to the news, but he said he discovered that it is, in fact, just up to each community to draft a local law to impose any restrictions.
Bettencourt informed the School Committee last week that he was having the city's legal team research the available options and he planned to bring a proposal to the City Council soon for approval. The committee, in turn, agreed to send a letter to the council urging it of the need of such a law.
"I think the city of Peabody needs to seriously look at this," Bettencourt told Peabody Patch after the meeting, calling it simply a measure for "protection of our youth."
He said he hopes to have a proposal to the council by the end of the month or early in July. Once the council votes, according to Bettencourt, that's the only approval needed for the ordinance to become law.
Level 2 and Level 3 offenders are only required to register with the local police department and those individuals' names, addresses and pictures are then made available to the public.
Any restrictive conditions placed upon sex offenders are imposed by a judge under terms of probation or by the parole board.
Police Chief Robert Champagne said Monday he is conferring with Bettencourt and legal staff on how best to implement a local ordinance.
Declining to go into specifics, he simply said Bettencourt has brought some good, creative ideas to the table.
"I think he’s being proactive on the issue," said Champagne. “It’s a difficult thing," he said, noting concerns for public safety while also not infringing on the rights of offenders who have served their time.
"Judges are very cognizant of putting restrictions on them…but when someone’s a free man, they get to roam the streets as you and I,” Champagne said.
"But there are folks who do represent a danger to the community and we want to know where they are,” he said.
Currently, only about 20 cities and towns in the Bay State have enacted "sex offender-free zones" or "child safety zones" or otherwise placed restrictions on where convicted Level 3 sex offenders can live in a community. And many of those laws have been challenged in the court system on constitutional grounds.
Massachusetts has not joined the approximately two dozen states that have adopted similar statewide laws since 1996, according to information from the Council of State Governments, thereby leaving that work to local officials.
The most recent battle over this issue has taken place just across the city line in Lynn, which is home to 64 registered Level 3 sex offenders, according to the state registry board.
Lynn officials had discussed adopting an ordinance since at least 2009. After implementing the law, five Level 3 offenders filed suit and are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, according to the Daily Item of Lynn.
The most recent iteration of the law prohibits Level 2 and 3 sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, daycare centers, parks or playgrounds. Those who live within the "exclusion zones" are required to move or else face a fine of $300 per day.
Part of the plaintiffs' argument in that case is that the "exclusion zones" cover most of the geographic area of the city and nearly all its available housing.
Stay with Peabody Patch this week for more on this issue.