A former tough-on-crime Pennsylvania lawmaker has adopted a new and unpopular cause, taking into his home three sex offenders who couldn't find a place to live — a stand that has angered neighbors, drawn pickets and touched off a zoning dispute.
As cities across the nation pass ever-tighter laws to keep out people convicted of sex crimes, Tom Armstrong said he is drawing on his religious belief in forgiveness and sheltering the three men until he can open a halfway house for sex offenders.
"I think that our system is trying to treat everybody under a particular brand and it doesn't work," he said. "And because of that we're creating housing problems, we're creating employment problems, we're creating community problems, and it's needless and it's not warranted."
Nearly 100 Pennsylvania municipalities have ordinances restricting where sex offenders may live. The ordinances generally bar them from moving in next to schools, playgrounds or other places where children might gather.
In early June, Armstrong quietly allowed a rapist and two other sex offenders who had served prison time to move into his 15-room century-old home 75 miles west of Philadelphia after another town blocked his plans for the halfway house. Soon, word got out after Armstrong's address appeared on the state Web site that lists the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders.
Residents of this former mill town of 2,700 on the Susquehanna River packed community meetings, circulated fliers with the men's mugshots and pressed officials for action.
"I understand how everybody deserves a second chance and all, but I'm not willing to risk my children and my neighbors to find out if they're rehabilitated or not," said Elizabeth Fulton, a mother of four who lives two blocks from Armstrong.
I think it is an impressive and surprising reversal of policy. I'm sure if he were still in office, Armstrong would be accused of "flip-flopping." Berman had these additional thoughts on the story:
It is common for politicians to become compassionate about these issues only after their own families or friends have been impacted by the severity of the modern criminal justice system. Too bad that so many people in power need to have personal bad experiences before becoming compassionate (and sensible) about the need and importance of having society playing a productive role helping former offenders get their lives back in order once released from custody.
With the increasing reach of sex offender laws, it may only be a matter of time before more politicians have friends and family connections to those regulated by sex offender laws. It certainly won't be enough to turn the tide against such restrictions. However, the story of Tom Armstrong might not be so unique.