By Chris Dornin
The NH Senate last week tabled and thus killed HB 1628, a bill to encourage police to actively notify the neighbors whenever a sex offender is released into their midst. A dozen opponents, including several sex offenders, had packed the senate public hearing on the legislation.
In response, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-1 to kill the bill politely by sending it to interim study in an election year. A co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Sheila Roberge (R-Bedford), voted to effectively defeat her own legislation after hearing the evidence against it.
There was no debate on the later Senate floor motion to table. Whatever infighting led to that outcome happened behind closed doors. After the vote, one senator said people were worried about the consequences to the families of sex offenders if neighbors got into the habit of welcoming every sex offender harshly.
I certainly expected an emotional floor fight in the senate chambers. Sen. Robert Letourneau (R-Derry) missed the committee vote, but he co-sponsored the bill and would have voted for it. Close split decisions are rare in senate committees and often lead to donnybrooks on the senate floor. All 24 senators received an email from me the night before the final vote with a copy of an op-ed I had just published in the Laconia Citizen. The full text appears at the bottom of this update.
I’m sorry to say the Senate killed HB 1484 the same way, a bill to bar towns from imposing residency restrictions against sex offenders. I heard conflicting reasons from senators and sources close to the governor for the surprising vote to table this fine legislation. It had sailed through the House and left Senate Judiciary Committee with a 5-0 ought-to-pass endorsement. The sponsors tentatively plan to resubmit the bill for next year.
Losing this favorable legislation was palatable in an election year. Only five towns have adopted these residency restrictions, and several have chosen not to enforce them in light of a district court decision last August. It shot down the Dover residency restriction against sex offenders as a violation of fundamental property rights.
An Op Ed in the Laconia Citizen May 12, 2010
" We are losing the war on sex offenders Community Commentary"
By Chris Dornin
But not the way you think. The stereotype of the mean stranger watching the schoolyard underlies the last two decades of sex offender laws. Ironically, these feel-good, knee-jerk statutes endanger the very kids they aim to protect.
State Sen. David Boutin (R-Hooksett) is sponsoring House Bill 1628 this spring to encourage police departments to use active public notice when sex offenders are released into a neighborhood. He filed the bill to please constituents hoping to drive all the sex offenders from Hooksett. Joel Dutton, a man on the sex offender registry, had been charged with a new sex crime. When Dutton made bail, his neighbors started a website against him with these and similar comments:
"You show true restraint by not beating the tar out of this lowlife." Chris Johnson
"I hope you guys get rid of the bastard. What a piece of crap." MTgirl
"This is an incestuous family of whack-jobs and psychopaths, and it makes me feel good to know they are going down." Steve
"Hang'em high and let the sun set on em. Only in a perfect world right? Haha" Josh T
Boutin echoed those feelings in his Senate testimony. "Late September of 2009 a convicted child sex offender heinously struck again and was charged with felonious sexual assault against a 7 year old Hooksett girl," Boutin told lawmakers. "Quick adoption of this bill and dissemination of notification guidelines to local law enforcement will go a long way towards preventing another sexual assault, with regrettable consequences for the victim, family and community, who all share in the burden of the pain."
There was much more to the story. The prosecutor has dropped the case against Dutton for lack of evidence. A neighbor had accused Dutton of molesting his own niece, who still lives with Dutton, his wife, and his brother in law.
States like Pennsylvania and New Jersey evaluate all their sex offenders for threats to the public and save active notice for the worst of the very worst. That lifelong punishment after incarceration can include mass emails, newspaper ads, wanted-style posters, and hostile PTA meetings. Those states also have strong safeguards against vigilantism. In the last decade dozens of registered sex offenders have been murdered.
These laws shame the very group of ex-cons least prone to do another crime. The recidivism rate for new sex charges against registered sex offenders is averaging about 1 percent per year in state after state. Likewise, the research says more than 95 percent of sex crimes are committed by people who have never been convicted before, usually the loved ones of the victim. Between a third and half of the offenders against kids are teenagers or younger themselves.
The middle school in Hooksett had a bizarre episode of active notice this winter. Jennifer Frank, a visiting detective from Plymouth State University, displayed student Facebook pages in front of the whole school. Some belonged to the children of local sex offenders. Then she posted their fathers' Internet mug pages from the state registry. Charles Littlefield, the Hooksett superintendent, confirms that these children were "traumatized." Steve Harrises, the principal, says he was "blindsided" by the assembly.
Something worse happened when Frank went to Fall Mountain High School. Steve Fortier, a school parent, gave this testimony at the Senate hearing on HB 1628. Fortier is not a sex offender, by the way.
"Many of the sex offenders whose information was shown (in front of the school) are family members of teens who were sitting in the audience," Fortier said in written testimony. "Because most youth sexual abuse is committed by a family member or someone else known by the victim, there was an even more troubling consequence. Many of the victims of the sex offenders were watching the assembly. This retraumatization, including the stigma associated with being a teen sexual abuse victim, was, in my opinion, not worth whatever gains were made through the assembly."
Other Fall Mountain parents have said kids ran out crying and stayed away from school for days. One couple has asked the Civil Liberties Union to represent them in litigation.
The hysteria sweeping New Hampshire against sex offenders has already reached a critical stage. Hostile neighbors drove convicted child murderer Raymond Guay from Manchester to Chichester to New Hampton last year. Along the way he stayed with the family of Pastor David Pinckney, whose parishioners gave the ex-offender meaningful handyman jobs to do. Pinckney told senators that men like Guay can assimilate safely back into society.
"I would welcome him back in my home," Pinckney testified.
Mobs gathered outside the apartment of registered sex offender Gloria Huot in Manchester a couple of years ago. People burned dolls on her wooden porch, according to news reports. Huot shared the apartment with another woman and her kids.
John Crawford, a former Laconia State School resident on community placement, was bludgeoned to death in 1981. Three former State School residents were awaiting trial on molestation charges. Rumors that Crawford was a sex offender had spread through his neighborhood before his murder.
A man at NH Prison stabbed two sex offenders in Concord and tried to burn an apartment building with seven sex offenders. The Maine vigilante who killed two sex offenders in 2007 was coming here next. After his suicide, police found a New Hampshire hit list on his computer.
Nobody can identify the very few predatory child rapists among the 2,700 mug shots on the New Hampshire registry. Judging by registry data from other states, most are incest offenders at low risk to commit a new crime. Some are husbands stung on the Internet without an actual victim. Some are drunken college guys who misunderstood a no for a yes. Some are former Romeos with 15-year-old girlfriends. Those are all criminals, I'm not minimizing their crimes, but they were well punished in prison. Few will recidivate. No one can tell if the folks branded by the registry have families to share the horrors of active notice.
None of the names comes with a clinical risk score. On line they all look bad. If HB 1628 becomes law, bullies will follow the children of sex offenders. Some will lose their jobs. Landlords will evict some of them. Some could become those mythical strangers watching the sandbox from the shadows.
Chris Dornin is a retired Statehouse reporter and religious volunteer into N.H. Prison working for criminal justice reform.