HELENA - A bill that could prevent juvenile sex offenders from living near schools was heard Friday by the House Judiciary Committee.
The proposed law would extend the same limitations existing for adult sex offenders to juveniles rated most likely to re-offend. In addition to schools, they would not be allowed to live near day cares, churches or public parks.
Republican Rep. Ray Hawk of Florence sponsored the legislation, after learning that a juvenile offender was living within 30 feet of a playground in his district.
The Florence-Carlton school was shocked to discover the 17-year-old offender living with relatives in a trailer from where he could watch schoolchildren playing.
"It caused a paralysis in our community," said John McGee, the superintendent of the district.
The attorney general's office supports the bill, which would affect only those juveniles considered at high risk to re-offend.
"This is a balanced approach that will serve public safety and not be too punitive for these juveniles," said Ali Bovingdon, a spokeswoman for the office.
If offenders complete treatment and their living situation is approved by their treatment officer, the bill allows the new residency restrictions to be waived.
Still, those involved in sex-offender rehabilitation argue that the bill sends the wrong message to the public about what causes a relapse and would interfere with youth offenders' recovery.
"Though this is emotionally appealing, if you're working in the field with these folks, one can see how it's not related to re-offense," said Andy Hudak of the Montana Sex Offender Treatment Association. "Where a guy lives doesn't have an influence on whether he re-offends or not."
The Montana School Boards Association also supports the bill in its "spirit and intent" but would like to see it amended to ensure that school districts are notified by the courts when high-risk juvenile sex offenders move into their schools.
Under the Sexual and Violent Offender Registration Act, all adult and juvenile offenders must register their location with the state, and the information is searchable online.
However, current law does not require direct notification of school districts, so they may not know if convicted sex offenders enroll in classes.
In fact, last year the Belgrade School District was surprised to learn through a community member who used the online registry that two juvenile sex offenders were enrolled in its school system, said Debra Silk, associate executive director for the association.
One of the students was allowed to remain at the school and the other was not, she said, adding that educators need to know the details of the offenders' crimes to make such decisions.
While Hudak agreed that schools should be notified about high-risk offenders, he said excluding sex offenders, especially young ones, from a community only increases the risk of recidivism.
"Consider the impact and the force toward the alienation of peers that this creates," he said.