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The Times Argus published a story this week about a controversy in Berlin over whether or not a single-family home in the town could and should be used for transitional housing for four men who are currently jailed as sex offenders.
At issue is a plan by the Community Justice Centers of Washington County to lease the single-family home for the four men. Those who live in the neighborhood strenuously oppose the plan and were vocal in their opposition at the select board meeting.
Berlin’s zoning administrator temporarily forestalled the issue by ruling that leasing the house to the Community Justice Centers would require a conditional use permit because such a lease would make the house a “state facility.”
Berlin’s zoning, in fact, does not appear to support such a ruling and states that group homes occupied by six or fewer residents should be treated as a single- family dwelling.
Zoning machinations aside, the issue raises the thorny question of how we handle sex offenders in the state and the country. People who are convicted of crimes, including sex crimes, will have served their prison sentences and completed the punishment meted out to them by our system of justice if they are seeking housing.
They need to live somewhere.
And yet the concerns of those who live nearby are understandable and justifiable given the rates of recidivism for those who commit sex crimes, especially crimes against children. Their concerns are valid. This is not just NIMBY-ism.
Author Russell Banks, in his book Lost Memory of Skin, writes about convicted sex offenders who have served their time and live in a homeless shelter under an underpass in Florida. He describes a scene and a life of hopeless desperation for those trying to comply with that state’s rules prohibiting them from living within a specific distance of where children gather.
Our system for handling this is fractured. Those who have been convicted and completed their time have to be returned to society and need to be given a chance. And those who live in that neighborhood deserve to be safe and deserve to have the character of their neighborhood protected.
Berlin’s dilemma underscores just how fractured the system is.