In Plain Sight

Sex offenders living near schools despite a law requiring them to reside outside 300 feet
From the back window of his house, Douglas Northup can look directly at the front door of the Anthony Carnevale Elementary School just off Harford Ave in Providence. A slight glance to the left gives him a clear view of the school’s playground. The school’s parking lot borders his property, separated only by a 5-foot fence.

Northup, 29, is listed by the state of Rhode Island as a Level 2 sex offender. He was convicted in 2005 of assaulting a 14-year-old girl that he didn’t know. He is one of more than 400 registered sex offenders living in Providence alone, with hundreds more spread throughout Rhode Island.
Rhode Island law dictates that he cannot live within 300 feet of any school — public or private. It is something Northup was told as he left prison. ACI officials even made him sign a form that he understood violating the law was a felony carrying a maximum 5-year prison sentence, and could jeopardize his parole or probation status.
But a Hummel Report investigation shows Northup is one of 15 registered sex offenders in Providence living within the 300-foot zone. In Northup’s case, the school is less than 200 feet from his house. How do we know? Through public information available to us online. With the click of a mouse anybody can find the name, address, date of birth and description of the offender and his or her crime, as well as a picture of the convict. We matched that against a map of schools throughout the city.
It’s information that is also available to the Providence Police Department, which has a sergeant assigned, full-time, to its sex offenders unit. And, the Rhode Island Department of Corrections; probation and parole officers are supposed to do periodic spot checks on where offenders are living.
Providence Police Major Keith Tucker, a 31-year veteran of the department, oversees the sex offender unit. We provided him a list of our findings, the result of a three-month investigation.
Hummel: I guess people see this law and they wonder where the police fit in and where corrections fit in?
Tucker: It’s important for us to be up on where people are living. It is the law, the 300 feet is the law. The issue, I think, is our ability to go out there and be up on this all of the time. I think there’s a lot of communications between us and corrections, probation and parole, when we become aware of these things, and we do act on them.
Corrections Director A.T. Wall says Providence has a lot of sex offenders and the caseloads for probation and parole officers tend to be higher there.
“Another important piece of that process is the duty to register,” Wall said. “Our institutional staff explain that under Rhode Island law, a sex offender is required to notify the police department in the city or town where he’s going to reside. We put them on notice. We explain the law’s requirements. They acknowledge in writing that they’ve been told of this duty to register and we send a copy to the local police department.”
We found offenders living throughout the city, including Veazie Street. Dominique Gaines has a kindergartner at the Veazie Street School, just off Douglas Ave. She didn’t know about it until we told her.
Gaines: When I heard Level 3 sex offender, I was like, my son goes here. It’s close.
Hummel: How do you feel about that?
Gaines: Nervous.
For years, the Urban League of Rhode Island has run a shelter on Prairie Ave that currently houses a dozen Level 2 and 3 sex offenders. The property borders Flynn Elementary School, which closed last summer, but had been open for years before that well within the 300-foot zone. A police substation and state probation/parole office is housed in the same building as the shelter, with a clear view of the school.
Director Wall said the 300-foot rule isn’t as clear cut as it may seem.
“The fact is that we know that individuals are not suppose to be living within 300 feet of a school. We also know that the overriding goal for our department and for the police is to avoid re-offense and the key to it is stability. And so it presents a dilemma for us. Somebody who has a place where they reside each evening and it’s known is somebody whose living situation is more stable than if they are moving around night to night and they are less likely to re-offend. So while we might take note of the fact you’re living within 300 feet of a school…it’s not the sole focus for our probation officers.”
We asked Major Tucker if this is a situation where it’s a law that sounds good in theory but may be tough to execute.
“Sometimes it takes a little time for law enforcement to be able to catch up,” the major said. “To be able to enforce the law as it’s written. We have a limited amount of resources — we already have priorities, and then when things through legislation become clearly what has to be a priority, we have to change the way we do things to make that happen.”
The Providence Police said they will take the results of our findings now – and do their own investigation.
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