It started several years ago with Megan's Law and the requirement of convicted sex offenders to register in the towns they were to live in upon their release from prison. Then, towns and the State decided to make public the names of those most severe offenders. Now, several NJ towns have enacted laws limiting where convicted sex offenders can live. One such town is Lower Township in Cape May County. Lower Township is considering an ordinance banning registered sex offenders from living or loitering within 2,500 feet of a school, park, playground, recreational area, day care center, or school bus stop.
On Monday night, one such offender, Steven Elwell, 34, spoke up. (Reported in The Press of Atlantic City, August 16, 2005). Four years ago, Mr. Elwell was sentenced to 3 years in prison for being a sex offender. He did his time, paid for his crime, and is now "free." Mr. Elwell, as his wife and 2 children stood by his side, addressed the township's governing body about the ordinance. "Where can I take my wife and two kids?" Elwell asked. "We've outgrown our house and I'm looking to move and there's no place to move." And Mr. Elwell fears more and more communities will adopt such ordinances.
Mr. Elwell received very little sympothy from the township officials and about 50 attendees at the hearing. "Maybe people should think about these things before they get involved in these crimes," said Councilman Mike Beck, a strong proponent of the ordinance. Mr. Elwell responded with, "I served a full year in state prison. I was stabbed and beaten. I don't think I need to serve for the rest of my life."
I do believe communities need to protect its children and citizens from sexual predators. But, are such ordinances such as the one being considered in Lower Township going a bit far? Let's face it. Mr. Elwell is right; if such an ordinance passes, he and his family will be forced out of Lower Township. It will be very hard to find a home that does not fall into one of the "forbidden" areas. Haven't individuals like Elwell served their time for the crime? Once released from prison, shouldn't that crime be behind them? As Mr. Elwell said, "If they're going to do this to sex offenders why not do it to everybody who's a criminal. What about people with drug charges?"
If these laws are challenged in court, and I am sure they will be eventually, it will be interesting to see what the courts decide. If sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated, which most experts believe is the case, then perhaps they should not be released from prison. But, once they are released, should their punishment continue?