Thursday, May 2, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Who's watching Belltown's sex offenders?

The Department of Corrections' effort to enlist neighborhoods in supervising and mentoring recently released sex offenders is a community safety plan with promise.

The first to enlist in the department's Guardian program was Seattle's Georgetown, a neighborhood in the far southwest corner of the city long beset by drug dealing and prostitution.

A small number of Georgetown residents now regularly meets with registered sex offenders to offer mentoring and other assistance. They also have gotten to know the offenders well enough to monitor their behavior in public. It has been successful — so far. A side benefit has been that drug dealing and prostitution have abated.

Now the department's Sex Offenders Unit has set its sights on Belltown, a densely populated neighborhood of apartments and high-end condominiums. Belltown has a large number of sex offenders living in its midst. In a dilapidated apartment building at Fourth and Bell streets, 35 sex offenders are housed. Hundreds more are scattered throughout downtown.

Few Belltown residents have signed up so far. Some cite a reluctance to spy on neighbors when close quarters means less anonymity.

That's unfortunate. Mark Baerwaldt, president of Belltown's Crime Prevention Council, is correct when he says the more partnerships between police, corrections and the community, the better off we all are.

The Community Protection Act of 1990 requires police to notify residents of a sex offender living in their immediate neighborhood. The Guardian program goes a step further in the right direction. Experts believe sex offenders are least likely to reoffend if they are monitored closely and stripped of their anonymity.

Every community in Seattle should have a vested interest in seeing sex offenders succeed in a crime-free life. When they fail, it means an innocent person has been victimized.

It is unreasonable to expect corrections workers to keep regular track of the 1,000 sex offenders released annually from Washington prisons. Communities can help protect themselves by helping police.

No one suggests residents follow sex offenders around town. Nor should anyone expect this to guarantee a community's safety 100 percent.

But neighbors should get to know the faces of the sex offenders in their community. They should take the time to report warning signs, such as an offender who is with a child or a vulnerable adult. They can also help sex offenders acclimate to the community by offering employment or housing assistance.

If it keeps sex offenders from harming someone, do it.


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