Pioneering Sex Offender Bill in N.Y.

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A state legislator wants to make sure that no more sex offenders get hired as building superintendents in New York. Assembly Member Micah Kellner said he introduced the bill after hearing that convicted sex offender William Barnason was working at three Upper West Side buildings, two on West 75th Street and one on West 73rd Street, where the offender also lives. But some experts say addressing this issue might take a more nuanced approach.

According to the state’s Sex Offender Act, the only place a convicted sex offender is explicitly prohibited from working is an ice cream truck, although employers for certain occupations—teachers and school bus drivers, for instance—must do background checks before hiring.

“When I recognized that there was such a hole in the law that could endanger so many people—literally giving someone who is a known predator the key to your apartment—I recognized that it needed to be closed,” Kellner said.

The bill proposes prohibiting level two sex offenders, who are considered medium risk, and level three offenders, who are high risk, from jobs that provide easy access to homes.

“I don’t see where the opposition to this bill would come,” he said. “Until an instance like this comes up, I don’t think anyone recognizes that this could be an issue.”

But Paul S. Applebaum, a professor at Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry who has studied sex offender policy, said the legislation could be counterproductive.

“The notion of blanket restrictions in former sex offenders’ employment frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Applebaum said, adding that those who have been convicted differ greatly one from another.

Although no states have adopted employment restrictions for convicted sex offenders beyond work at ice cream trucks, some, including New York, have restrictions based on proximity to places children gather. In terms of residency, the Sex Offender Registration Act doesn’t limit where sex offenders can live unless parole or probation is involved. Still, 35 counties and boroughs—including Nassau and Suffolk, but not New York City—have imposed some form of restriction for residency: typically a radius of 1,000 to 2,500 feet around a school or daycare.

“As we make it harder for sex offenders to find a place to live,” Applebaum said, “we make it harder for them to reintegrate into the community, to build bonds, stay in therapy and become productive members of society.”

Richard Tewksbury, a professor at the University of Louisville who studies sex offender registries, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the legislation passed, particularly in a metropolitan environment where many people live in apartments.

“Considering that residential restrictions for registered sex offenders are very popular across the nation, this would seem like something I would not be the least bit surprised to see enacted,” he said, adding he doesn’t necessarily support the idea.

“I could see other communities seeing value in these kinds of restrictions, and I think that New York might in fact be leading the way in a new wave of restrictions of the activities of offenders, including the employment,” Tewksbury said.

For some tenants who live in the buildings where Barnason works, the proposed bill is welcome news. Donna, a 63-year-old who has lived in a building on West 75th Street since 1970, said that a woman moved out a few years ago after she and her child had problems with the superintendent.

“I don’t think she reported him,” said Donna, who didn’t want to reveal her last name because she was concerned about Barnason’s reaction. “She was too scared.”

As far as Donna knows, no one had flagged Barnason until last week, when the New York Post reported that the superintendent propositioned several female tenants for sex in exchange for rent breaks. One tenant, however, did distribute copies of his picture when she found him in an online sex registry a few years ago.

“I think that whoever he bothered was too afraid to say anything,” Donna said. “It’s usually when something gets highlighted that an action gets taken, so better late than never.”

According to the Post, Barnason no longer has keys to apartments in the buildings, where Stanley Katz is the landlord. West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal sent a Feb. 1 letter to Katz expressing her concern and requesting a “thorough investigation” into the allegations against the superintendent.

“His past convictions and current record of behavior is troubling, and this sort of tenant harassment cannot be tolerated,” Rosenthal wrote.

Jonathan Davis, Rosenthal’s legislative director, said she also plans to draft letters to tenants of the three buildings to inform them of their rights.

“That’s our strongest concern, is helping out the folks in these buildings,” Davis said.

Katz’s lawyer did not return calls for comment.

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