HELENA — Some convicted sex offenders could not live within 300 feet of schools or other facilities frequented by children under a bill Montana lawmakers considered Thursday.
Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, introduced House Bill 219 in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
The bill would bar high-risk sex offenders from residing within 300 feet of a school, day care, playground, park, athletic field or any facility that primarily serves minors. It is aimed at offenders who committed a sexual offense against a person younger than 13.
Except their own children, the offenders also could not live “in a place where a minor resides.” Essmann said that includes an apartment building, duplex or shared living space where anyone under 18 lives.
It’s the third time Essmann has introduced legislation to put geographical restrictions on sex offenders. Previous versions failed because of vague language in the bill, but Essmann said restricting the regulation only to “high-risk” offenders should mitigate those worries.
Brenda Erdelyi, a clinical member of the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Association, said the text could stand to be even clearer. Erdelyi said that without including Montana’s existing terminology used to describe certain sex offenders who are threats to public safety, some people who are not threats could be unfairly affected by the bill.
“It’s easy to paint with a broad brush in regard to how we approach managing sexual offenders in the community,” she said. “But that’s the easy way to do it — it’s not necessarily the appropriate way to do it.”
Niki Zupanic, a representative of American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, told Essmann that she appreciated the language change in his latest proposal, but opposed HB 219.
Zupanic said isolating offenders would do more harm than good. The bill would force the offenders out of city centers and away from access to employment and a support system, she said.
“Geographic restrictions do isolate an offender just at the critical time when he or she can be attempting to reintegrate back into society,” Zupanic said.
Those supporting and opposing the bill disagreed on whether geographic restrictions have proven effective in keeping communities safer.
According to a state budget agency, typically one person under 18 is registered as a high-risk sex offender every year. The state would need to pay for youth offenders to be housed out of state because no youth detention, foster care or family housing that includes young siblings would be allowed under HB 219.
The state budget agency found that enforcing such a law could cost $300,000 annually. The estimate includes costs for new or prolonged incarcerations and at least two additional state staffers to keep tabs on sex offenders.