Too Close for Comfort
Four years ago Rhode Island passed a law making it a felony for registered sex offenders to live within 300 feet of any public or private school. But a three-month investigation by The Hummel Report found more than a dozen sex offenders in Providence listing addresses within the 300 feet. They include one convicted of assaulting a 14-year-old girl with a clear view of an elementary school from his back window. This week Jim Hummel sits down with the Providence Police and the state Director of Corrections to talk about the law - and our findings.
To see a list of the sex offenders we found living within 300 feet of a school, click HERE.
To see the legislation, click HERE.
When sex offenders leave prison Rhode Island law requires them to register with police in the community where they live. Level 2 and 3 offenders, the most serious, are now posted online, with name, date of birth, and description of both the offender and the crime he or she committed.
And there's a picture.
In 2008 the General Assembly amended the law to make it a felony for any offender to live within 300 feet of a school, public or private. The original proposal had been 500 feet.
An investigation by the Hummel Report found 17 out of the 136 Level 2 or 3 offenders registered with the Providence Police Department living within that 300 foot buffer zone. One has since moved, another died.
Hummel: ``St. Patrick's Academy opened here in December in the building that used to be the old St. Patrick's School on Smith Street. Right across the street: a Level 2 offender living in Carroll Towers.
``This is the Veazie Street Elementary School located just off Douglas Avenue. Less than a hundred yards down the street, the department has a Level 3 offender listed as living in that yellow house.''
Dominique Gaines learned about it from us.
Gaines: ``When I heard Level 3 sex offender, I was like, my son goes here. It's close.''
Hummel: ``How do you feel about that?''
Hummel: ``The closest we found is a Level 2 offender in the house just over the fence right off Hartford Avenue and the property borders the parking lot of the Carnevale Elementary School.
Then there's Mayra Khalil, who owns the Love 4 All Child Care Center on Elmwood Avenue in South Providence. The police have notified her in the past that sex offenders were moving into the neighborhood, but didn't use to give her an address. It wasn't until we contacted her that she learned three Level 3 offenders are living in this building 200 feet north of her daycare, and 300 feet across the street from the Gilbert Stuart Middle School just off Elmwood Avenue.
Hummel: ``How often do those notifications come?''
Khalil: ``Every so often, maybe once a month, every other month.''
Hummel: ``And how do you hear from the Police Department?''
Khalil: ``We don't hear from them, they just mail it to us.''
And up until recently the Providence Police Department was not providing an address.
Hummel: ``Would it be helpful for you to have the address?''
Khalil: ``Yeah, it would be very helpful - that way we can identify the addresses and relate it to the places that we already own.''
Hummel: ``Because when I called you a couple of days ago you were unaware about 292 Elmwood Avenue.''
Khalil: ``I know there's a homeless shelter, I didn't know these people have been identified as sexual predators because we don't have them in our system.''
And while Mayra Khalil says she has to follow Department of Education guidelines for her program, there is some question whether a daycare center like hers is a school under the definition of the statute.
Wall: ``Providence has a lot of sex offenders residing there, and as we deploy our resources those caseloads tend to be somewhat higher than in other parts of the state.''
Corrections Director A.T. Wall says when sex offenders are released they are told by their probation officers about the 300-foot rule and have to sign a form acknowledging they were notified. Violating the law is felony carrying up to five years in prison.
Wall: ``Another important piece of that process is the duty to register. Our institutional staff explain that under Rhode Island law a sex offender is required to notify the police department in the city or town where he's going to reside. We put them on notice, we explain the law's requirements. They acknowledge in writing that they've been told of this duty to register and we send a copy to the local police department.''
Tucker: ``Last count, 446 registered sex offenders in the city of Providence, Level 1, 2 and 3s combined.''
Major Keith Tucker oversees the full-time Providence Police officer assigned to the department's sex offender unit.
Tucker: ``People coming in, notifications, they go out and do compliance checks.''
Hummel: ``I guess people see this law and they wonder where the police fit in and where corrections fit in. Let me just get your initial reaction to that when we sent you that list and we had this...what is your reaction to that?''
Tucker: ``It's important to us to be up on where people are living. It is the law, the 300 feet is the law. The issue, I think, is our ability to go out there and be up on this all of the time. I think there's a lot of communications between us and corrections, probation and parole, when we become aware of these things, and we do act on them.''
For years the Urban League of Rhode Island has run a shelter on Prairie Avenue that currently houses a dozen Level 2 and 3 sex offenders. The property borders Flynn Elementary School, which closed last summer, but had been open for years before that well within the 300-foot zone. A police substation and state probation/parole office is housed in the same building as the shelter, with a clear view of the school.
Director Wall says the 300-foot rule isn't as clear cut as it may seem.
Hummel: ``Three hundred feet is a pretty close range - is there any discussion among your people to say. `Hey Joe, what about that school, right around the corner, is there any problem with that, does that dialogue go on in your department or should it go on?''
Wall: ``It does go on, the fact is that we know that individuals are not suppose to be living within 300 feet of a school. We also know that the overriding goal for our department and for the police is to avoid re-offense and the key to it is stability. And so it presents a dilemma for us. Because the fact of the matter is somebody who has a place where they reside each evening and it's known is somebody whose living situation is more stable than if they are moving around night to night and they are less likely to reoffend.
``In addition, we want to know where you are.
We don't want to drive you underground. So while we might take note of the fact you're living within 300 feet of a school, and that would be part of continual conversation that occurs with the police, it's not the sole focus for our probation officers. Our focus is on determining whether they are compliant with conditions and whether there's any evidence to suggest that they are sliding in some way that's going to trigger an urge to reoffend.''
Tucker: ``Ultimately it is our responsibility to ensure going forward that these type of situations don't occur and the department takes this responsibility very seriously when it comes to the Level 2s and 3s and protecting the community. And I would ask if anybody was aware of this certainly we should be notified and the police department will take the appropriate action.''
Hummel: ``Is this a situation where it's a law that sounds good in theory but it may be tough to execute?''
Tucker: ``Well, I think some legislation, well-intentioned and people really feel strongly about what they put forth and have passed, and sometimes it takes a little time for law enforcement to be able to catch up. To be able to enforce the law as it's written. We have a limited amount of resources - we already have priorities, and then when things through legislation become clearly what has to be a priority, we have to change the way we do things to make that happen.''
Hummel: ``We've identified a dozen, 16 people, who we have found living within that 300 feet.
Now that that's been brought to your attention, have you made your officer aware of that? What happens?''
Tucker: That officer is aware of those people who are in violation and we have to have a conversation here and consider what our next course of action will be.''
In Providence......Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.