Following Issaquah's lead, Monroe last week became the first Snohomish County city to enact strict rules about where registered sex offenders...

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Following Issaquah’s lead, Monroe last week became the first Snohomish County city to enact strict rules about where registered sex offenders can live.

In doing so, the city places itself at the center of a growing controversy over whether such rules are legal and whether they keep sexual predators from children.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Issaquah, which in August adopted restrictions on where sex offenders may live, saying the city rules effectively prevent sex offenders from living in any residential area.

The Monroe ordinance forbids Level 2 and Level 3 offenders — those the state deems most likely to reoffend — from living within 750 feet of a school, park or day-care center. It also imposes $250-a-day fines on violators and $100-a-day fines on people who knowingly rent or lease property within the 750-foot zones to registered sex offenders.

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“This is not paranoia. It’s not banishment. It’s a prudent action to minimize the risk of exposure to sex offenders,” said Mitch Ruth, a Monroe councilman and a former state Department of Corrections guard and supervisor.

Ruth said Monroe is particularly vulnerable to sex offenders moving into the community because many inmates convicted of violent sex crimes are housed at the Sex Offender Treatment Program at the state prison complex in the city.

Ruth said many of those inmates’ families move to Monroe and continue to live in the city after the offenders are released.

“We’re trying to walk a fine line,” Ruth said. “We want the families and friends to feel welcome. But we also want to provide a safe, family atmosphere in our community.”

But civil libertarians said the law won’t improve public safety and further punishes offenders who already have served time for their crimes.

“There’s no correlation between where a person lives and where they commit a crime,” said Aaron Caplan, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington.

Caplan said research shows that sex offenders with stable housing and social support are less likely to reoffend than those who lack that stability.

In Everett, city leaders are awaiting the results of the suit against Issaquah, spokeswoman Kate Reardon said. A King County judge in September declined to stop the Issaquah ordinance from going into effect. A trial on the issue is not scheduled until 2007.

Other Snohomish County cities are awaiting the recommendations of a state task force on how best to manage sex offenders after they’re released from prison. The task-force report is due to Gov. Christine Gregoire on Dec. 1.

Edmonds City Attorney Scott Snyder said that while cities generally favor retaining options to enact their own laws, a state law about sexual offenders may be more effective because there are more areas within a large state where offenders can live.

A state law that went into effect in July restricts people convicted of sex crimes involving children and who are under state supervision from living within 880 feet of schools. Issaquah established 1,000-foot restrictions. But most offenders aren’t under state supervision when they’re released from prison.

Snohomish County has about 1,430 registered sex offenders, including about 133 Level 2 offenders and 70 Level 3 offenders, according to the county Sheriff’s Office.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com