POLL: Lee may keep sexual predators away from beaches, other child-friendly places

Do you agree that Lee County should adopt the Child Safety Zone ordinance, or do you think the state statute is enough to protect children from sexual predators and sexual offenders?

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— Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott wants to keep sexual predators and offenders away from county beaches, parks, libraries and other child-friendly attractions including Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlors.

During a board planning and management meeting Monday, Scott presented county commissioners with a “Child Safety Zone” ordinance that, if adopted, would establish those restrictions.

“The ordinance does two things,” Scott told commissioners. “First of all, it ties up some loose ends in the state statute. And it is meant to enhance our ability to provide heightened protection for our children.”

The ordinance bars sexual predators and sexual offenders from any facility that is primarily designed for children’s use and from facilities that are “customary gathering places of children.”

According to Scott, there are 530 registered sex offenders living in Lee County.

Offenders would be barred from facilities including schools, day-care centers and playgrounds.

Libraries, beaches, video arcades, traveling carnivals and zoos are also specified as off-limits.

Sexual offenders would have to stay at least 300 feet from such places, according to the ordinance.

Those who break the law would be subject to a maximum 60-day jail term and $500 fine.

The ordinance does specify that sexual predators and sexual offenders would not be prohibited from such places if they were accompanying their own children, or accompanying the children of family members or friends with parental permission.

Though the restrictions are tough, Sarasota County passed a similar law one year ago and has had success enforcing it, said Scott.

“We feel pretty comfortable moving forward,” Scott said. “It’s not like we are pioneering an ordinance; it has been done before with no problems or legal challenges.”

With minimal discussion, commissioners agreed to hold public hearings and more formally consider the ordinance at future board meetings.

“I guess these are the times we live in,” said Commissioner Tammy Hall. “The more protections we can put in for our children, probably the better.”

Jill S. Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton who studies the effects of sex offender laws, said loitering ordinances are becoming common alternatives to stricter residency laws popular in recent years. The residency laws, which prohibit convicted sex offenders from living within a certain distance of child-frequented sites, such as bus stops and schools, have created housing problems for many offenders, who struggle to find a home that falls outside of protected zones.

The result has been a scattered class of offenders facing an increased level of stress that could cause some of the worst to revert to criminal behavior, Levenson said.

“In the large scheme of things, I would rather see people restricted from going to the beach than restricted from having a place to live and becoming homeless,” she offered.

Florida law bans sex offenders from living closer than 1,000 feet from a day-care center, school or playground. More than 130 municipalities have passed stricter residency ordinances, Levenson said, most of them increasing the boundary to 2,500 feet and some adding bus stops as protected areas.

As with other sex offender laws, the restrictions will affect a broad range of convicted criminals, including some who might never repeat their offenses, Levenson said. She advocates a classification system to weed out serious offenders from those unlikely to repeat.

In fact, statistics show that most sexual assault victims knew the offender before the incident. According to a 2000 study by the federal Bureau of Justice, 93 percent of child victims knew the offender as a family member or an acquaintance.

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