County Executive Steve Bellone has signed a bill passed last week that ends “clustered” housing of registered sex offenders, putting an end to the two trailers used to shelter the county’s homeless sex offenders. The legislature’s minority leader, Republican John Kennedy of Nesconset still questions why the new law had to be pushed through so quickly and wonders aloud whether the $900,000 annual contract granted to a private contractor should have been subject to a competitive proposal process.
Though hailed by Suffolk Police Chief James Burke as “the most comprehensive law in the nation” for dealing with registered sex offenders — as well as by East End legislators delighted that the seven-year saga of the county trailers in Riverside and Westhampton will finally come to an end — both the law and the process by which it was enacted have drawn sharp criticism.
Civil rights advocates question the constitutionality of vesting a private entity with quasi-law enforcement authority to undertake intensive home surveillance of registered offenders. Others, including the legislative minority leader, Republican Jack Kennedy of Nesconset, are troubled by the hasty adoption of the law and the $900,000-a-year contract it awards to a the Stony Brook-based Parents for Megan’s Law group, without first soliciting competitive proposals.
The county executive pushed the bill through the legislature in a single day, submitting it to lawmakers on the morning of their Feb. 5 general meeting. It was called for a public hearing and submitted to a vote that very afternoon.
That flies in the face of democracy and sound public policy, according to the director of the Suffolk chapter of the N.Y. Civil Liberties Union.
“The bill was introduced, updated, subject to a public hearing and voted on within three or four hours,” NYCLU Suffolk director Amol Sindha said in an interview this week.
Bellone’s office issued a certificate of necessity, which allows the legislature to forgo its normal committee process in deliberating a bill. The CN, as it is known, is “a time-sensitive request” by the county executive on a resolution that requires “immediate consideration,” according to the county’s website.
But use of a CN is a sensitive subject around the horseshoe in the legislative auditorium — and one that doesn’t sit well at all with Kennedy. At last week’s meeting, Kennedy questioned the need to circumvent the committee process. He was joined in his reservations by members of the Republican caucus. In the end, they all voted to approve the measure.
This week found the minority leader second-guessing himself in that decision.
“There is much ambiguity in the administrative code and the county charter,” Kennedy said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We have, in essence, empowered the county executive to utilize this. But it clearly is supposed to be for a situation that’s emergent,” Kennedy said.
This was not such a situation, but instead was one of political expediency, he said.
Then why vote to approve? Lawmakers, including Kennedy, passed the measure unanimously — by a voice vote.
Kennedy said both Bellone and Parents for Megan’s Law executive director Laura Ahearn lobbied hard to get legislators on board with the bill and approval by CN. Kennedy said he knew most, if not all, other legislators would support Bellone’s effort on this hot-button issue.
“There was a sense of inevitability,” Kennedy said.
And he did not want to stand alone in opposition to a bill that would be embraced by the public as a “get tough” law on sex offenders. Such opposition comes with a price tag, as he learned the hard way, he said. Kennedy cast the lone no vote on the county’s residency restrictions law for registered sex offenders. It was a hugely unpopular vote and he lost the support of his party because of it. He found himself in a tough primary battle to win nomination for re-election.
“It was no fun,” said Kennedy, who reiterated his belief that the residency law is unconstitutional. That issue is currently before a court and officials acknowledged last week the county is likely to lose the case — as has every other municipality that’s enacted restrictions on where registered sex offenders can live.
“We put this feel-good pablum out there for the public, making them think they’ll be safer,” Kennedy said. “And now we’ve spent a tremendous amount of taxpayer money to defend bad legislation.” The Republican leader said he’s concerned the county is going down the same path with the new law, dubbed the “Community Protection Act.”
Of particular concern, Kennedy said, is that the law empowers a private organization with responsibility for verifying the home addresses of the county’s registered sex offenders.
Equally troubling, Kennedy said, is the approval of a $2.7 million, three-year contract with a private entity without details of the contractor’s responsibilities being disclosed to lawmakers and without submitting the contract to any sort of competitive process, Kennedy said.
“Bellone will say they’re a sole source provider and bring it before the waiver committee,” Kennedy said. That will allow the administration to circumvent the county’s procurement policy that otherwise requires the county to issue a request for proposals for all contracts in excess of $25,000, he said. “That’s the only way they could thread the needle.”
“I wouldn’t deem Parents for Megan’s Law the only entity in Suffolk County to do what the contract requires,” Kennedy said. “And we don’t even know what that is. There’s nothing defined yet,” he said. “But there are other victim services agencies in this county.”
“By local law and after public debate, the county has satisfied the procurement guidelines under state and local law for this type of contract,” Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokesperson for Bellone said in an email yesterday.
The public had an opportunity to comment on the measure at both a presentation given to the legislature’s public safety committee on Thursday, Jan. 31 and at the general meeting the following Tuesday, Feb. 5.
But the bill itself was not available to the public until the afternoon of the Feb. 5 hearing. It was not posted on the legislature’s website until after it was adopted.
“To call it a public hearing is essentially a farce,” NYCLU’s Sinha said.
Others, like Kennedy, are troubled by the bill’s lack of specifics about the duties of Parents for Megan’s Law under the $900,000 annual contract.
Forensic psychologist Bill O’Leary, who, under contract with the state, works with registered sex offenders, points out that 95 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by people who are not on any registry.
“If we really want to protect our children from sexual predators, we need to address that instead of focusing all our resources on the registered offenders who re-offend, which represents a statistically small portion of those crimes,” O’Leary said in an interview.
O’Leary made the same argument to lawmakers at the hearing last week, pleading with the legislature dedicate resources to prevention through education, and by strengthening its child protective services unit, which has suffered budget cuts.
“If there’s money to be spent, that’s where the county should spend it,” O’Leary said at the hearing.
He got no response from lawmakers at the meeting.
The new law, in the section authorizing the contract with Parents for Megan’s Law, lists six types of services the organization will provide. Item six reads: “the provision of community and prevention education.”
Kennedy, who complained at last week’s meeting that the bill did not have the proposed contract attached to it, which he said was the norm, reiterated that complaint in an interview with RiverheadLOCAL this week.
“When you look at the research, it’s frightening — the small number of sex crimes committed by registered offenders, as opposed to people not on any registry. Yet we’re still so focused on the registry,” Kennedy said.
“It’s missing the forest for the trees.”
Riverhead Assessor Mason Haas, who spoke on behalf of the town in support of the bill at the hearing, agreed more emphasis should be placed on prevention and education.
“There’s no doubt it needs to be tweaked,” Haas said. But as a longtime advocate for closing down the homeless-offender trailers, Haas said the new program represents the local community’s best shot at making that happen.
During a break in the public portion of last week’s meeting, Haas engaged in a discussion with O’Leary about education and prevention initiatives needed and Parents for Megan’s Law might do in that regard under the new contract.
Haas suggested the two speak with Ahearn, who was also in the lobby of the Hauppauge auditorium. Ahearn refused to discuss it in the presence of O’Leary, Haas said.
O’Leary said he was not surprised. He said Ahearn has refused to talk with him, or respond to his calls or emails for some time.
Ahearn acknowledged her refusal in an interview this week.
“It’s my understanding he has a practice in which he provides services to sex offenders,” Ahearn said. In her opinion, she said, he has no place in a county program monitoring sex offenders, counseling victims or crafting education and prevention programs.
“I’m sure if he [O’Leary] wants to expand his efforts he has the wherewithal to go out and find grant funding to do it,” Ahearn said.
“If you saw the presentation, if you took the additional time to listen, you know the program includes significant victims services and prevention initiatives,” Ahearn said.
Parents for Megan’s Law would be hiring “additional prevention staff” to undertake those services, she said.
In a presentation to the county legislature’s public safety committee on Jan. 31, Ahearn outlined a “sex offender tracking and community support eight-point plan.” Under the new program, the organization would establish a 24-hour hotline providing access to a trained specialist, she said. An education supervisor will “conduct extensive outreach to schools and community organizations and train per-diem prevention educators to conduct sexual abuse, abduction and rape prevention workshops and Internet safety programs. The group will also enhance its existing crime victim advocacy support programs, she said.
The slide presentation given by Ahearn and the Suffolk police chief can be viewed here.
O’Leary said he does not understand how an effective program to prevent sexual crimes could be undertaken without consulting any mental health experts on the criminals themselves. He said he has expressed that sentiment to the county executive and was hoping for a meeting with him.
The county’s process in crafting and adopting the new law was “not informed decision-making,” O’Leary said. “It’s not defining the real problem and putting the solution ahead of defining the problem.”
O’Leary said the general public is terrified of registered offenders. “As the father of two young children, I completely relate,” he said. “But that fear is largely misplaced. The real threat comes from trusted relatives and family friends. People you know. They are the people who are far more likely to molest your child. It’s a difficult thing to come to terms with. But if we really want to prevent abuse, we need to teach parents and children where the real threat lies and teach them how to recognize warning signs. We don’t need to use scare tactics and we certainly shouldn’t lead people to believe the main threat is from people on a registry.
Advocates for reforming registry laws argue that’s exactly what the registry laws and groups like Parents for Megan’s Law do.
An organization called USAFair, established in 2012 by family members of registered sex offenders to advocate for the reform of registry laws, faults lawmakers, the media and groups like Parents for Megan’s Law for what they say is exaggerating the likelihood of a registered offender re-offending.
“A 2010 survey by the Center for Sex Offender Management of the U.S. Department of Justice found that 72 percent of Americans believe that the sex crime recidivism rates are 50 percent or higher, with a third believing it is more than 75 percent. Only 3 percent believe it is less than 25 percent – even though actual recidivism rates are considerably below 25 percent,” USAFair said in a Feb. 4 press release. “New studies are constantly confirming low recidivism, with the latest being released last month showing a recidivism rate in four states of 10 percent after 10 years, with rates dropping sharply with years of offense-free tenure in the community.
USAFair faults Ahearn’s group in particular, arguing that the Parents for Megan’s Law website misrepresents recidivism statistics.
“USA FAIR has been attempting to get Parents for Megan’s Law to take down misleading statistics from their website that reinforces the ‘big lie’ of high sex offender recidivism,” the organization said in a statement. “Numerous studies, including a landmark 2003 study by the U.S. Justice Department have found that sex offenders actually have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the criminal justice system, about 5.3 percent.”
Shana Rowan, a USAFair founder, said she wrote to Ahearn in December seeking changes to statistics on the PFML website that she says misrepresent the results of a study on repeat offenders. Ahearn never replied to the letter.
“As executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, Laura Ahearn has shown herself to be a zealot who has built a career demonizing the very people she is now to be charged with monitoring. She has perpetuated the myth of high sex offender recidivism, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to enrich her organization,” Rowan said.
Ahearn dismissed Rowan’s criticism, pointing to Rowan’s engagement to a registered offender who she said “raped a six year old child.” Ahearn also said Rowan is “part of NAMBLA,” the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Asked for documentation, Ahearn said, “Just search her name on the Internet.”
Rowan categorically denies that she has ever in any way been associated with NAMBLA. A website called evil-unveiled.com has a page about her with her name in the URL, and it’s the top hit in a Google search of her name. The page says she is a member of “the new NAMBLA” a name the website gives to “activists” seeking reform of registry laws, allegedly so that they can have sex with children.
“I think it’s very telling that she [Ahearn] would resort to personal attacks instead of discussing the issues on the merits,” Rowan said this week.
Rowan said as the recipient of signifcant public funding — Parents for Megan’s Law’s 2011 federal tax return reports the group received more than $946,000 in government grants in 2011, the lion’s share of its total revenue of just under $1.1 million — the group should be held accountable for providing accurat information to the public. “That was really all we were seeking,” Rowan said. “The new deal with Suffolk County is a whole other subject,” she said.
“Parents for Megan’s Law has no experience in sex offender management – none,” Rowan said, questioning how the county could “sole-source such an important and costly contract without even considering truly qualified parties – such as the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, who are mental health professionals and sex-offender policy researchers. Rowan said the vote by the legislature was “a political attempt to purchase Laura Ahearn’s support for the controversial proposal at great cost to the taxpayer.”
Asked to respond to the criticism of USAFair, Baird-Streeter, the county executive’s spokesperson said, “No comment.”