HELENA — A plan to keep high-risk sex offenders from living near children advanced out of a Montana Senate panel Tuesday.
The bill restricts adults who victimized young people from living within 300 feet of an established daycare center, playground, park, athletic facility or any place where children live.
Sponsor Rep. Jeff Essmann said his constituents have repeatedly told him they don’t want known predators living near elementary schools.
One woman asked “‘Can you do something about the sex offender that lives right up there?’ and pointed to an apartment window right across the fence from the playground behind her Montessori school,” the Billings Republican said.
No one spoke for or against the bill on Tuesday. At its hearing in the House in January, parents supporting the bill and representatives of various organizations opposing the bill disagreed on whether geographic restrictions have been effective in keeping communities safer.
House Bill 219 cleared the House by a wide margin.
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the measure on an 8-4 vote Tuesday with Democrats in opposition. One Democrat voted with seven Republicans in favor.
Democratic Sen. Robyn Driscoll voted against the bill because the Legislature is advancing a separate proposal that she said could send more sex offenders to a treatment facility that happens to be next to a school.
Senate Bill 411 would phase out the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder amid allegations of abuse and neglect. Other than jail or the state hospital, the center provides the only court-ordered residency option for some sex offenders with mental disabilities.
“I don’t feel like we can have it both ways; we can’t close MDC and have this bill,” Driscoll said.
Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, defended the bill, which applies only to offenders recognized by the state as violent predators who may threaten public safety.
“I personally support not allowing class-three sexual offenders to ever live where they’re in close proximity to minors,” Vincent said.
Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe, D-Great Falls, opposed the bill because it would force offenders to relocate every time a family moves into their apartment building or neighboring home.
Eighteen states have enacted laws restricting sex offenders’ residencies in some way, according to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven of those specifically restrict offenders from living near children.
Essmann said his previous proposals to geographically restrict sex offenders failed in recent years because they would have applied to all levels of offenders.
“We’re focused down now to a very small group of high-risk offenders,” he said.
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