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Two years later, law keeping high-level sex offenders away from schools remains unenforceable

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CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – It was mid-September when police put out a “Code Red” sex offender notification about a man living in a Cranston neighborhood who had been convicted of sexually assaulting two women. The 27-year-old is a “level 3” sex offender, which means he’s considered at high risk to reoffend.

That’s when the calls starting coming in to Cranston Police.

“The property directly abuts the preschool, so you can imagine the concern that’s there,” Colonel Michael Winquist said in an interview with Eyewitness News.

Neighbors questioned why the man had been allowed to register at that address when a school was so close by. A state law passed in 2015 should have stopped him from living within 1000 feet of a school.

“Obviously those laws are in effect to protect people in the neighborhood,” Winquist said. But his hands are tied, he explained, because of a legal battle over the law that has left it unenforceable for two years.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court back in 2015 with the help of the ACLU, on behalf of seven level 3 sex offenders. The lead plaintiff, John Freitas, has since died. But the remaining six have continued fighting the 1000-foot law, and a federal judge has put a restraining order on the law while the legal challenge is ongoing.

“Right now there’s nothing to stop someone from living immediately next to a school,” Winquist said.

The lawsuit claims offenders’ rights are violated by the 1000-foot residency requirement, forcing them to move from their homes even if they lived there prior to incarceration. In many cases, according to the suit, offenders are staying with family and would become homeless if they had to move.

The definition of “school” is also undefined in the 2015 law, leaving individual cities and towns to determine when a sex offender is in violation. The suit says the word “could be interpreted to include an adult dance school, a yoga studio, or a school for the culinary arts, cosmetology, or martial arts.”

“Nothing happened, no child was harmed that precipitated this law,” said Megan Smith, an outreach worker at the House of Hope, a nonprofit that helps people dealing with homelessness and housing issues.

She and other advocates mobilized after the 2015 law was passed, identifying and contacting more than 30 level 3 sex offenders across the state who lived within 1000 feet of a school and could potentially be forced to move.

“Had the 1000-foot law been implemented, it would have put 64% of the city of Providence off limits,” Smith said.

She says as it is, few landlords are willing to rent to sex offenders, and public housing authorities won’t accept them as applicants. Assuming sex offenders can find a market-rate apartment willing to house them, Smith say many can’t find high enough paying jobs to afford the rent.

Because of this problem, dozens of sex offenders in Rhode Island are homeless. Col. Winquist estimated 45 are currently living in Harrington Hall in Cranston, one of the few shelters that accepts them. Police regularly stop by the shelter to do compliance checks, but police and advocates agree that sex offenders will have better success reintegrating into society if they have permanent housing.

“By having someone have a permanent residence, statistics show they’re less likely to offend,” Winquist said.

Potentially compounding the problem could be a new law passed during a special session last week, limiting the number of registered sex offenders in a homeless shelter to 10% of the total population.

“If it is signed by the governor…it would make 40-50 people immediately street homeless” in the state, Smith said.

Numerous organizations including House of Hope, the ACLU, Crossroads, Amos House and the Roger Williams University School of Law have asked the governor to veto the bill.

A spokesperson for Gov. Gina Raimondo did not return a phone call or email Thursday asking whether the governor would sign it into law.

Meanwhile, the legal challenge over the 1000-foot residency requirement remains ongoing. The federal lawsuit is still in the discovery phase.

The attorney general’s office says the restraining order against the 1000-foot rule actually allows level 3  sex offenders to live closer to schools than lower risk offenders; the law keeping level 2 sex offenders 300 feet back is still in effect.

In the meantime, police are conducting sex offender notifications and patrolling areas where level 3 sex offenders live. Sex offenders are still held to strict registry requirements, and have to pass frequent compliance checks.

To check if a sex offender is living near you, you can visit the sex offender registry.