Fitchburg numbers high, but officials say risk low
By Peter Jasinski
UPDATED: 02/12/2017 10:17:27 AM EST
Locations of registered sex offenders in Leominster. SOURCE: MASS. SEXUAL OFFENDER REGISTRY
FITCHBURG - For Massachusetts communities with a population of about 40,000 residents, the number of registered sex offenders living there is usually fairly low.
Most of these cities and towns will see numbers in the teens and single digits. On the higher end, cities like Holyoke and Leominster are home to a population of sex offenders in the low to mid 20s.
Fitchburg, however, is an exception. While neighboring Leominster's population consists of 25 registered Level 2 and 3 sex offenders, Fitchburg is home to exactly 60.
While the number of offenders living in the city is higher compared to others, Fitchburg Police Chief Ernest Martineau said it has not caused any local increase in sexual assaults.
"It's not a problem because of how much we pay attention to it," he said. "We address it every month and make sure all our registered offenders are in compliance, and if they're not in compliance we're the first to charge them."
Martineau explained that the department has a detective that oversees the activities of the city's sex offenders and spot checks of these local residents are conducted regularly.
"I couldn't say why we have more sex offenders than (Leominster), there's no rhyme or reason to it," he said. "There's no one dictating to these folks where they can and can't live once they get out of prison.
" A series of laws passed in Massachusetts in 1999 established policies for monitoring sex offenders and notifying the public of where they live, but a 2015 ruling made by the state's Supreme Judicial Court on a municipal law in Lynn designed to restrict where sexual offenders could live and work meant that local housing restriction laws in Fitchburg, Leominster, and about 40 other municipalities could no longer be enforced.
That ruling made it possible for a Level 3 sex offender to move into a building across the street from the Cleghorn Youth Center on Fairmount
Street in Fitchburg, which sparked discussions on finding ways to change local ordinances last year. While Fitchburg may have more than twice the number of offenders than Leominster, its housing restriction ordinance had been comparatively more strict. Before it was deemed unconstitutional by the Lynn ruling, Leominster's ordinance forbid any Level 2 or 3 offender from living within 1,250 feet of any school. The Fitchburg ordinance restricted registered offenders from living or working within 1,000 feet to areas around schools, but also any park, playground, licensed daycare center, or any other child-care facility. One possible explanation as to why Fitchburg's number of offenders is nearly three times higher than comparable communities could be lower housing costs.
Based on recent monthly averages of local housing properties, multiple listing service data shows that Leominster apartments tend to be larger in square footage and at least $100 more expensive than average rents in Fitchburg. Peter Wagner, an attorney and executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said the cheaper housing costs in one community over the other could have caused more sex offenders to settle in Fitchburg.
"In my work, I hear how hard it is for people who have just gotten out of prison to get a job and keep a job. And from doing a lot of mapping of where people on the registry live, it's typically in a given community's poorest areas," he said.
While having so many former offenders living in one area may sound like it would lead to more repeat offenses, University of Michigan law professor J.J. Prescott said this is not the case as people don't tend to commit offenses in their own neighborhoods.
"There's a long line of research to suggest that sex offenders aren't impulsive people who see a victim in front of their apartment and attack them," he said. "You actually tend to see clusters of offenders, so in that way it's almost better to live closer to sex offenders than further away from them."
A study co-authored by Prescott and Amanda Y. Agan of Princeton University and published in 2014 reinforced this theory. Using historic crime data from Baltimore County, Maryland, Prescott and Agan were able to show that the presence of sex offenders in one area is associated with fewer sex offenses, with each additional sex offender being associated with 7.5 percent fewer sex crimes in a given area.
According to the Fitchburg Police Department's most recent crime statistics, the rate of sexual crimes have dropped slightly in recent years. There were an average of 31 rapes every year between 2010 and 2014, but only 26 in 2015. Between 2014 and 2015 the number of statutory rapes also dropped from 14 to eight.
However, Prescott maintains that keeping a public registry of sex offenders, like what is used in Massachusetts, can have an opposite effect.
"This makes it very difficult for them to build new relationships, very difficult for them to hold jobs, and people who don't have jobs or stable housing, who are shamed and the subject of ridicule, are ultimately much more likely to return to crime," he said.
While the Lynn ruling made it possible for sex offenders to settle anywhere within a given community, members of the Leominster City Council are drafting amended legislation they hope will be adopted at the state level in order to bring new housing restriction laws to the affected 40 Massachusetts communities.
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