Legislation establishing a new monitoring and enforcement program for Suffolk's registered sex offenders — ending the use of the trailers in Riverside and Westhampton — sailed through the county legislature Tuesday.
The measure won the unanimous approval of legislators present, in a 15-0 by acclamation, despite the reservations of some lawmakers that the bill, which hadn't been delivered to the legislature in final form until 12:30 that afternoon, had not been properly vetted.
Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) who had fought a losing battle with fellow lawmakers and the Levy administration to get the trailers removed, called the new plan "by far the best opportunity we've had to get the trailers closed down since this nightmare began." He said he believed yesterday's action means the trailers will be closed "in a matter of months."
County Executive Steve Bellone, who last May promised to have the trailers closed by the end of 2012, worked very hard to secure support for the new plan in the legislature, Schneiderman said. But the South Fork legislator, whose district encompasses both the Riverside and Westhampton hamlets where the county department of social services trailers are place, did not expect it to be unanimous. His face lit up with a grin as his colleagues seated around the horseshoe in the crowded legislative auditorium one by one expressed support.
"It's very gratifying after all this time to finally have a solution that's not only promising for the whole county but a big win for the East End," Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said after the vote. Fleming, fellow councilman Chris Nuzzi and Southampton Town Supervisor all attended the meeting and spoke in support of the bill at the hearing.
Riverhead assessor Mason Haas, a Jamesport resident who's been an outspoken opponent of the trailer in Riverside since 2006, also spoke in support of the measure at the hearing. Haas said he was speaking as a representative of the Riverhead Town Board, which had its regular semi-monthly meeting that afternoon in Riverhead and did not make the trip to Hauppauge.
A contingent of Riverhead and Southampton residents filled the auditorium. Many spoke in support of the bill, focusing on its language requiring "no more than one hard to place individual shall be placed at any location and to the extent practicable, clustering in any one community should be avoided."
Civic leaders from other parts of Suffolk asked the legislature to slow down and send the bill to committee for deliberation.
Sandra Thomas of Wheatley Heights complained about the lack of community input and said she believed, despite language about avoiding "clustering" of homeless registered sex offenders, it was unavoidable.
"There are not enough single men's shelters" in the county to have one offender per shelter, as has been discussed, Thomas said. Housing multiple offenders in a single shelter is unavoidable, she said. And minority communities are bound to bear a greater burden, she said.
"Minority communities and comminuties of color that already bear a lot of social ills are going to bear even more," Thomas said.
Alice Cone, of West Babylon, president of Belmont Lake Civic Association, said minority communities "are already overwhelmed with group homes, homeless shelters, and halfway houses...and cannot absorb any more."
Bayview Pines resident Carl Iacone said his "diversified" community of Flanders has "just as many homeless shelters and group homes."
"There is a cluster of sex offenders," Iacone said, "and it's in our neighborhood. Nobody on this board wants them. Nobody sitting in this audience wants them. Yet we've had them for six years," Iacone said. "Don't keep the whole burden on the people in the Flanders area."
The "Community Protection Act" was introduced yesterday by County Executive Steve Bellone, accompanied by a certificate of necessity asking the legislative body to consider it immediately, circumventing the normal legislative committee process.
"The Suffolk County Police Department has crafted the most comprehensive sex offender monitoring, verification and enforcement program in the nation in order to protect our families and this program should be implemented without delay," said the certificate of necessity signed by Deputy County Executive Jonathan Schneider.
Legislators John M. Kennedy (R-Nesconset) and Rick Montano (D-Brentwood) questioned the need for acting on the measure the same day it was introduced, without review, hearing and vote by the public safety committee. Suffolk Police Chief James Burke and Parents for Megan's Law executive director Laura Ahearn presented the plan to the Public Safety Committee on Thursday, but there was no legislation then pending — or, apparently, even drafted — at the time.
Amol Sinha, director fo the Suffolk Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, during a public hearing , faulted the county for "the harried way this law is being pushed through the legislature," which he said was acting without taking adequate time for deliberation, debate and input from experts in sex offender management. Sinha said the new law is "grounded in misinformation about sexual assault and the context in which such crimes take place."
"The unfortunate reality is that most sexual violence is committed not by strangers, but by acquaintances and family members, most of whom are committing a crime for the first time. According to the Department of Justice, 85 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim," Sinha said. "The New York Office of Sex Offender Management reports on its website that 94 percent of people arrested for sexual offenses in New York State had no prior conviction. That means that the overwhelming majority of people arrested for sexual crimes in New York are not subject to the types of notification and monitoring that the county is proposing, because they are committing a crime for the first time."
Bill O'Leary, a forensic therapist who works with registered sex offenders under contract with law enforcement agencies, including the departements of parole and probation, made the same argument to legislators during the public hearing. He said he also said the same things to the county executive and police chief.
"What is the number of sex crimes in Suffolk County committed by registered offenders?" O'Leary asked. "I can't get an answer to that." O'Leary said he is not an advocate for registered offenders, but wants to see the county take action to prevent sexual crimes by education and strengthening its child protective services unit, which he said has suffered budget cuts. "If there's money to be spent, that's where the county should spend it."
The bill authorizes a new contract with Parents for Megan's Law, a private nonprofit organization, of up to $900,000 per year for three years.
Under the terms of the legislation, the group is to enhance its website and email notification system, improve community reporting of violators, develop a smart phone app for community reporting and make home visits to verify, twice a year, the residence addresses listed in the state registry for all of Suffolk County's registered sex offenders. The group will also compile a database of employment addresses for the county's level 3 offenders.
The bill also requires the group to conduct "community outreach and education" for the purpose of preventing sexual crimes.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti