In response to a firestorm of public outrage over the placement of paroled Level 3 sex offenders at the EconoLodge Motel on the eastern edge of town on Route 299, New Paltz officials are investigating possible strategies to stop the community from becoming a dumping ground for predators. The New Paltz Police Department gave notice on its Facebook page of two Level 3 offenders being relocated to the motel on October 6 and two more on October 8. “There will be six by the end of the week,” chief Robert Lucchesi told the New Paltz Town Board at the October 15 Police Commission meeting.
As he launched a discussion of what steps might be taken at the municipal level, town supervisor Neil Bettez explained that the EconoLodge is the only hotel or motel in Ulster County in Ulster County that is currently accepting Level 3 offenders being transitioned out of prisons. Other lodging facilities throughout the county do accept Level 1 and 2 offenders. According to the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services, a Level 3 offender is one classified by the courts as presenting a “high risk of repeat offense and a threat to public safety exists.” Such individuals are permitted to be housed in a motel for up to 30 days, under supervision, upon release from incarceration, if no more permanent residence is yet available.
The motel’s recent decision to begin allowing Level 3 offenders to stay there, Bettez explained, was motivated “partially by Covid. These businesses are trying to make ends meet” during a period when travel has been restricted. The supervisor said that “people who have served their time” are entitled to a fair chance to transition back into lawful society, but expressed concern that New Paltz is taking on too many. “As a society we have an obligation, but I don’t think it’s New Paltz’s responsibility to bear all that weight for the entire county.”
Bettez and Village of New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers have begun researching local laws passed in other communities that put caps on the number of sex offenders that can be housed in a single lodging facility, with a formula based on the number of rooms and the risk level assigned to the parolees. Fines would be imposed on motels that fail to comply, with the amount of the fine increasing if there are repeat offenses. Bettez said that it might be possible to pass a similar law at the November Town Board meeting, adding that discussions with attorneys need to happen first, and a public hearing must be scheduled.
On October 19, Mayor Rogers aired an informational Zoom meeting with Chris Farrell, a clinical psychologist and head of the Sex Offender Unit for the Ulster County Probation Department. Asked what had changed recently to bring the deluge of sex offenders to New Paltz, Farrell explained, “For the last three years, all Level 3s have been contained in the prison system, because there have been no places that would accept Level 3s under supervision…Housing them in prison costs taxpayers a tremendous amount of money when it’s beyond their release dates.” It’s the fiduciary responsibility of the state Department of Corrections’ discharge coordinator to identify hotels and motels willing to house parolees, he said. It’s because the EconoLodge was the only one to step forward that New Paltz has become the epicenter of the current problem.
While many of the objections raised by local residents involved the proximity of schools to the EconoLodge, Farrell downplayed this fear, noting that only about ten percent of pedophiles prey on strangers, and that incidents of abuse almost never occur on school property except in cases where the offender works on the premises. “I’d be more concerned about policing one’s own family and acquaintances,” he said. Best practices for protecting one’s children include keeping open lines of communication and making sure they “understand that their body is their body.” Most victims of pedophiles are “children alienated from their family. Sex offenders get very good at identifying them” as likely targets for grooming, according to Farrell, who has been working closely with such convicts for 19 years.
Farrell criticized the current corrections system in New York State for failing to create “halfway houses” in every town to provide transitional housing for sex offenders as they return to their communities of origin. Most offenders feel shame and want to change their behavior, he said, noting studies that show recidivism rates to be lowest when these parolees are able to transition into stable home environments and receive group therapy support. He also took issue with the system of risk levels assigned by judges or parole boards rather than clinicians, saying that the process is “flawed,” arbitrary and outdated, not based on an empirical, scientific model.
“The level system isn’t always an identifying factor of whether this person is hardcore,” he warned. Still, he agreed with community members on the hot-button question, “Why should we saddle one community with the most dangerous criminals?”