The Niagara County Legislature is facing a dilemma over what to do about its law setting up a sex offender buffer zone. As backward as it seems, the Legislature needs to repeal its law and comply with less-restrictive state rules. If not, the county runs the risk of creating financial problems for the citizens it is trying to protect.
Courts operate on the premise of supremacy, in which no state law is allowed to be more severe than a federal law, and no local law is allowed to be more severe than a state law. Because of that principle, sex offenders have filed lawsuits against communities with more-restrictive laws.
A sex offender who wants to live in North Tonawanda is being kept in prison, even though his sentence is up, because he can’t find a residence that complies with the city’s law. He is suing both North Tonawanda and the county.
Nobody wants a sex offender next door, but there can’t be multiple, conflicting systems of justice. In the long term, the state has to come up with a solution that answers the safety concerns of local governments. Short term, though, municipalities should conform to the state law, for their own self interest if nothing else.
It is a decision Niagara County leaders must make. Even the original sponsor of the proposal, Legislator Paul B. Wojtaszel, R-North Tonawanda, understands as much. As reported by News Niagara reporter Thomas J. Prohaska, who has written extensively on the issue, Wojtaszel “regretfully” conceded “that if we continued to enforce this law, we would face legal liability.”
The county’s law, passed in 2008, bars all Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders, the most serious categories, from living within 1,000 feet of any school, park, playground, day care center or other places where large numbers of children gather.
It’s tougher than state law, which applies the 1,000-foot buffer zone only to Level 3 offenders on probation or parole. What makes the issue more complicated is that the county law differs from those of communities lying within its boundaries.
Earlier this year, Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III invalidated a Town of Newfane law with a 2,000-foot buffer zone, and North Tonawanda’s quarter-mile buffer zone has been challenged in court.
The City of Lockport looked closely at its own law applying the 1,000-foot rule to all Level 2 and Level 3 offenders and repealed it on Aug. 1. The council also passed a resolution urging the city’s representatives in Albany to work on a harsher state law.
The state has to come up with reasonable regulations for Level 2 and 3 offenders that will supersede the patchwork of county and local rules that run the high risk of being overturned in court because they are tougher than what has come out of Albany.
Lawsuits filed by sex offenders against local governments with stricter laws create angst among elected officials balancing the practical with the understandable public outcry for stricter laws that will keep parolees away from children. The officials also have to factor in whether the buffer laws are even effective.
According to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services “Myths and Facts” page on its sex offender registry website, the common belief that residency restrictions make communities safer is unclear.
What is clear is that the state has to come up with an across-the-board solution.