MARIETTA, Pa. – 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.
The town's zoning officer promptly taped a violation notice to the former lawmaker's door, citing an ordinance that limits the number of unrelated people who can live together. Armstrong is fighting the violation.
A Republican, Armstrong served 12 years in the Legislature before he was defeated in a primary in 2002. He was known for taking conservative positions on abortion, taxes and crime but also for his role in later years supporting prisoner rights. Over the past two decades, he also took in homeless veterans, and more recently he has been a mentor to ex-cons.
The 49-year-old insurance agent said his compassion for people he says are being treated as modern-day lepers stems in part from personal experience: Eleven years ago, he said, his brother was convicted of exposing himself to girls and was jailed.
"My evolution in this whole process, if it's meant to create positive change, then great, I'm all for that," he said.
Armstrong has a son, 19, and a daughter, 16. His son still lives with him, but his wife and daughter left to care for a sick relative and have no immediate plans to move back in, he said. The sex offenders are barred under the terms of their probation from living under the same roof with minors.
Municipalities across the country and at least a dozen states, from Vermont to Arizona, have placed limits on where sex offenders can live, sharply narrowing their options. In some cases, the rules have made entire cities off limits.
"It's what I call a tough policy that's not smart," said John Q. La Fond, a retired professor of law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an expert on sex offender policies.
He said there is no evidence that the laws reduce the number of offenders who commit another crime, and he said they frustrate efforts by ex-convicts to find housing, jobs and treatment.
Besides the rapist, Armstrong's guests include a man who fondled a 15-year-old neighbor girl and one who was caught with child pornography on his computer at the university library where he worked. Armstrong said they do chores around the house while they look for work and contribute whatever they can, up to $100 a month each, toward the utility bills.
He said defense attorneys and prison counselors had contacted him for help and assured him they were no threat to anyone.
When Armstrong heard pickets were planned, he put a cooler full of cold drinks on the sidewalk next to a cardboard sign with a handwritten verse from Jeremiah: "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sin no more."