Feb. 4, 2010 -- A group of YMCAs in Connecticut have begun revoking the memberships of registered sex offenders in a move officials say is meant to comb out predators who may come in contact with the thousands of children who use those Ys.
The new policy by the Connecticut YMCAs is the latest in a spreading movement by YMCAs. Similar programs already exist at Ys in Florida, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.
While the policy has been applauded by some, it is also raising questions whether it violates the rights of registered sex offenders and makes it harder for them to be rehabilitated.
Last week, 12 YMCA community centers in Connecticut cross referenced their membership database with the state's sex offender registry.
Philip Dwyer, the president and CEO of the Central Connecticut Coast group, said that YMCAs have always done background checks on their staff members and volunteers and that checking for registered sex offenders was just the next step.
"Technology has caught up and made it easier to do these checks," said Dwyer, "and so we took the natural progression on that journey and began to check the database of the entire membership as well."
Dwyer said that the first sweep of the 12-branch membership occurred last week, and checked approximately 50,000 names. Of those, Dwyer, who refused to give precise numbers, said only a "handful" came up as registered sex offenders.
"Once we get a name, we first confirm that the information is correct. Technology is not perfect," said Dwyer. "We need to go through the proper steps and confirm it's the same information, determine what caused the registration to be necessary and make a decision based on facts."
Will YMCA Policy Ban Offenders Who Are Trying to Reform?
Dwyer told ABCNews.com that the circumstances surrounding an individual's crime would be taken into account before their membership to the YMCA is revoked.
"We'll use the same approach that we do for our staff and volunteers," said Dwyer. "If someone was in college and did something at a fraternity walking down the street after having more beers than they should have and there's been a clean record since then, then that will be part of our decision [into their membership]."
But offender advocacy groups worry that with registered sex offenders already limited in where they can live and work, closing another door to them may hurt their chances at a normal, crime-free life.
"I assume that at some point we'll get to a place where registered sex offenders won't be allowed to breathe," said Paul Shannon, one of the founders of the Boston-based Reform Sex Offender project. "This is just going down the same path of lunacy."
Many states limit how close in proximity registered sex offenders can live to schools or playgrounds. Depending on their crime, some registered sex offenders aren't allowed to live with children either, even if they are related.
Shannon said the YMCA's screening process is "ineffective" and lumps all registered sex offenders together, when really not all of them are dangerous.
"We have to stop using horrendous cases that are typical of a registered person as a way to violate the rights of registered people and to further jeopardize the possibility of community in society," he said.
According to the Center for Sex Offender Management, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice, between 12 and 14 percent of sex offenders are known to have repeated their crimes. The data does show, however, that many sex crimes go unreported and the statistic could be low.
Some Worry Offenders Will Be More Likely to Re-Commit Crime If They're Isolated
Karen Baker, the director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said that she thinks the YMCA is right to screen their members' history for sex crimes.
"Certainly for any activity involving children at the Ys, it's probably a good idea to do that kind of screening," said Baker. "Wanting to keep children safe always trumps wanting to help an adult rehabilitate themselves."
But Baker agreed with much of what Shannon said, adding that there is a fine line between protecting children and isolating one-time criminals who want to make a fresh start.
"If we really want communities to be safe and we want people who have offended children to change their behavior and lead a more responsible productive life, we have to give them a chance," she said. "If we make it so hard for them to have any kind of normal life, then we are increasing their stress, driving them underground and making them much more dangerous."
Shannon said that of all places reformed criminals should feel welcome to go, it's their local YMCA.
"The whole idea here is that all of us have done stuff in our past that we're ashamed of," said Shannon. "We're all struggling to live as well as we can and people who have committed sex offenses, most of them are trying to seriously pull their lives together and integrate themselves into society.
"And certainly the YMCA should be there to help," he said.
The YMCA of the USA said in a statement to ABCNews.com that "each YMCA association is independent and autonomous, so local operational decisions are made by an association's volunteer board of directors and professional staff."
And Dwyer was not moved by criticism of the policy.
"We have a greater responsibility to the 35,000 children who walk through our doors and whose parents expect us to provide a safe environment. This is a perfect example of the needs of many outweigh the needs of the one," Dwyer said.