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Allegheny towns weigh sex offender laws

| Tuesday, June 12, 2007, 12:00 p.m.

This spring, Maria Holzworth started driving her three daughters to school for the first time in years. This summer, she won't let them go to the swimming pool in Mt. Lebanon without her.

"There's just no way. I have to be there," she said.

Life at the Holzworth house has changed since a convicted sex offender moved into the neighborhood. Now, Holzworth and other parents are pressuring the town's commissioners to pass an ordinance that would restrict where convicted sex offenders can live.

At least three other municipalities in Allegheny County are drafting similar ordinances. If the measures are approved, Mt. Lebanon, Ross, Shaler and Braddock would be the first municipalities in the county to enact such restrictions. Statewide, 83 municipalities have such laws.

The proposals, in general, would prohibit convicted sex offenders from living within certain distances of places where minors congregate, such as schools, day care centers and parks. In Mt. Lebanon, that distance is 2,500 feet.

The Ross ordinance would prohibit sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of day care centers, parks and schools. Violation of the ordinance could carry a fine of as much as $1,000, but no jail time.

Different forces are at play within the four municipalities. In Shaler, a state survey asking whether the township had such an ordinance prompted commissioners to ask the solicitor to create a draft. In Mt. Lebanon, parents provided the impetus. Officials in Ross and Braddock said it was time to go with a trend toward instituting such residency ordinances.

In a survey conducted in December and January by the Sexual Offenders Assessment Board, a state organization that evaluates convicted sex offenders before their sentencings, about 6 percent, or 150, of the state's 2,558 municipalities said they are considering measures to restrict where sex offenders live.

"This is kind of a response to the idea that you want the community safe for your kids," said Lauren Taylor, executive director of the Sexual Offender Assessment Board.

State law does not prohibit sex offenders from living near such places, but it does alert schools and residents when a sexually violent predator, the highest classification of sex offender, moves into a neighborhood.

"We haven't had residents asking for it," said Shaler Manager Tim Rogers. "There are people in Shaler who are registered (sex offenders), but we haven't had any issue with those individuals."

Shaler Solicitor Joseph Vorgin said the ordinance he drafted would prohibit sex offenders from living within 1,500 feet of places where minors congregate.

A law that keeps sex offenders away from minors is an issue of public safety, but can create logistical problems for police departments, Taylor said.

"I'm not sure how you enforce this thing," she said. "Is that all you want your police to be doing?"

The Pennsylvania State Police dedicates 11 people to tracking convicted sex offenders and keeping offender information up to date on the Megan's Law Web site. If an offender fails to register, said state Trooper Lynette Quinn in Harrisburg, the unit issues an arrest warrant.

But, the state police would not have to notify a municipality if an offender violated that municipality's sex offender residency restrictions. Municipalities would enforce their own ordinances, Quinn said.

Other states, such as Iowa and Oklahoma, have had stringent residency laws for sex offenders for years.

In Iowa, state law requires that a person convicted of a sex crime involving a minor cannot live within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union fought to overturn the statute in 2004, claiming that it drives offenders underground and unnecessarily punishes people who don't pose a risk to children.

A district court declared the law unconstitutional, but an appeals court overturned that decision and upheld the law. The state's Supreme Court refused to hear further arguments.

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