Public Safety & Justice

Where Will Sex Offenders Live?

Creating buffer zones around schools and other public places can make entire cities off-limits.
by | June 2006
 

Miami Beach wanted to keep sex offenders as far away from children as possible. So officials there came up with a plan that, on the surface, would seem to do the trick. An ordinance passed last year makes it unlawful for those convicted of a serious sex crime to live within 2,500 feet of any school, public bus stop, day care center, park, playground "or other place where children regularly congregate." The city could have saved some ink by simply writing: "No sexual predators allowed in Miami Beach." That, in essence, is the effect of the law. "The whole city is basically covered by this," says Mayor David Dermer. "As far as I'm concerned, it worked well."

When other cities heard about it, Dermer's office was deluged with calls. And so began the domino effect: As towns began to realize that neighboring jurisdictions might enact strict sex-offender residence rules, they scrambled to do the same, not wanting to be without an ordinance or have a relatively lax law that could serve as a welcome. More than 50 Florida municipalities, and 20 others from around the country, requested a copy of the ordinance from Miami Beach.

It's no surprise that public officials feel the need to do something. The nation was shocked last year when two Florida girls, nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford and 13-year-old Sarah Lunde, were murdered by registered sex offenders within a two-month span. In the wake of those and other widely publicized sex crimes in recent years, a race to clamp down on sex offenders picked up speed.

Eighteen states now have laws that prohibit sex offenders from living within a certain distance--generally ranging between 1,000 to 2,500 feet--from schools, playgrounds and other facilities where children gather. In addition, dozens of localities are enacting their own restrictions. Lawmakers rarely argue against their passage.

Jurisdictions with existing buffer-zone laws are increasing the distance regulations or adding more facilities to the list of places that are off-limits. In addition to schools, parks and day-care centers, some also are including libraries and swimming pools. As in Miami Beach, the goal seems to be to post "no vacancy" signs at the border. "I've had folks say, 'I don't want them anywhere in my town,'" notes Charles Onley, a research associate at the U.S. Department of Justice's Center for Sex Offender Management. "Everyone wants these folks somewhere else."

Which begs the question: Where will sex offenders live? It seems that few people really care, beyond the offenders' families and the people whose job it is to work with them. But perhaps they should.

Critics of buffer-zone laws say people are kidding themselves if they think their children are safer because sex offenders live a half a mile from a school instead of, say, a quarter of a mile. Or don't live in town at all. "If sex offenders out there want to commit a crime, it's not a matter of where they are living," says Dr. Fred Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has been treating sex offenders for 25 years. "They will go somewhere with access to a victim. Much of public policy is enacted in response to a horrible crime," he adds.

But it may not be good public policy. In addition to the possibility of putting children in more danger by creating a false sense of security, such laws may also hamper law enforcement's ability to do its job effectively.

PUBLIC NOTIFICATION

The foundation for residence restrictions on sex offenders was laid more than a decade ago. In 1994, Congress passed a law compelling states to require convicted sex offenders to register their post- release address with local law enforcement agencies. This assisted parole and probation officers, who are responsible for supervising, monitoring and tracking them. But the public was out of the loop. Two years later, Megan's Law mandated community notification programs to provide citizens with information on sex offenders in their midst.

States were given discretion in deciding what information is "necessary to protect the public" and the methods for disseminating it. Forty-eight states currently provide registry data about sex offenders on the Web (Oregon will launch its site on July 1; South Dakota releases information through local law enforcement agencies).

The level of detail varies widely. Some states post information about only the most violent offenders and/or those considered most likely to re-offend. Others use broad crime categories that fail to differentiate among the types of sex offenses. For example, there are cases in which students in their late teens have been prosecuted for having consensual relationships with younger schoolmates. Those teens are unlikely to be stalking children at bus stops. But neighbors have no way of knowing whether it is a sexual predator or a teen Romeo living down the street.

Nor are the people who live near sex offenders necessarily getting constructive information about what to do with the knowledge that there's a sex offender next door. "Give me some guidance on what I ought to be doing about it," Berlin says. "That's not happening in a universal way."

Registries also have proven to be riddled with inaccuracies. In a Chicago crackdown, investigators went to more than 80 homes sex offenders listed as their addresses--only to find that more than three-quarters of them were abandoned buildings, empty lots or not the home of the offender.

But, when the listings are accurate and detailed, the posting of registry information on the Internet gives anyone, anywhere, the ability to know the precise location of tens of thousands of sex offenders as easily as the officers in charge of supervising them. If registered sex offenders worry about the humiliation or harassment of being listed, now they may fear for their lives.

In April, a Canadian man shot two registered sex offenders in their Maine homes. One had been convicted as a sexual predator. The other was 17 when he was arrested for being in a relationship with a 15- year-old girl, legally a minor, two weeks shy of her 16th birthday. The registry was taken down after the shootings, and the state is trying to figure out how to handle the registry in the future.

GOING UNDERGROUND

Such issues haven't stopped elected officials from introducing buffer-zone laws as a way to protect communities, particularly in reaction to a horrific sex crime. "I've heard it called feel-good legislation," says Mayor Dermer, but he doesn't buy it. "If you have a child, do you want a registered sex offender living next to you? Do you feel comfortable with that?" Miami Beach's law is tailored to pertain to the more serious crimes against minors, not, for example, the Romeo offenses.

While acknowledging that the law isn't a panacea and can't keep predators from driving into Miami Beach, Dermer does think it's one of several proactive measures a city can take to protect its children.

The Justice Department's Onley understands the sentiment but is concerned that if it has the effect of driving sex offenders underground, it will interfere with supervision of convicted felons on parole and probation, who are monitored on an individual basis. "Legislators are doing it with good motivation, but they may negate laws put there to locate these folks for public safety," he says.

Iowa's law, for example, has made as much as 90 percent of the land area in major cities off-limits to sex offenders. As a result, 21 sex offenders wound up grouped together in a down-at-the-heels motel outside of Cedar Rapids this spring. Others have resorted to living in their vehicles--essentially homeless and hopeless, which only puts more pressure on them to re-offend, criminal justice officials note. In Wellington, Florida, about the only place sex offenders can legally live is in a rural, equestrian area where homes sell for a half million dollars and up.

The constitutionality of Iowa's 2,000-foot restriction was challenged and the law struck down by a federal district judge in 2004. However, an appeals court subsequently ruled that sex offenders' rights were superseded by the state's compelling interest in protecting its citizens. In a separate case, the Iowa Supreme Court also upheld the law. Although the Iowa Civil Liberties Union petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the issue, the court declined to take the case.

If it becomes too difficult for sex offenders to find an affordable place to live, or they are harassed and forced to move, they may stop playing by the book and change residences without notifying authorities, register false addresses or simply disappear. The registry becomes less reliable and law enforcement has a harder time doing its job.

Since Iowa began enforcing the statewide residency law last September, nearly 300 sex offenders on the state's list of 6,000 are unaccounted for--twice as many as the previous 150 whose whereabouts were unknown.

Many people also don't realize that residence laws leave out a wide swath of potential sex offenders, including sexual deviants contemplating their first attack. In about 90 percent of the cases, predators know their victims. They might even live with them. In the vast majority of sex-crime cases involving minors, the attacker does not snatch random victims off the street. Rather, it is often a relative or a friend of the family who takes advantage of a minor. No buffer zone in the world is going to prevent that type of crime.

The Iowa County Attorneys Association, which has urged legislators to repeal the residency-restriction law, also points out that sex offenders often have families and children. In a significant number of cases, they have married or reunited with their victims. If a sex offender can't live in his home because of a buffer-zone law, the lives of spouses and children who have committed no crime are disrupted. In some cases, it could be for living, say, 2,300 feet from a school instead of 2,500.

ISOLATIONIST POLICIES

The debate over how to deal with known sex offenders in the community tends to pit people who treat or monitor sex offenders against just about everyone else. The number of advocacy groups fighting for the rights of sex offenders is small. Few elected officials openly oppose limiting where sex offenders live. Any attempt to make laws less harsh doesn't sit well with voters. "It's almost heresy to suggest anything that might be seen as supportive of helping a sex offender," says Johns Hopkins' Berlin. "They're so demonized."

Iowa prosecutors argue the state law requiring that registered sex offenders live 2,000 feet from schools and other places does not provide the protection intended. The Iowa County Attorneys Association listed 14 problems with the law. For one, research does not show that children are more likely to be victimized by strangers at the locations covered by the law than elsewhere. And research shows no correlation between residency restrictions and a reduction in sex offenses against children or an improvement in their safety.

In California, Assemblyman Mark Leno has called the rush to effectively banish offenders the "new McCarthyism." California has an initiative on the November ballot prohibiting registered sex offenders from residing within 2,000 feet of a school or park, along with provisions on GPS tracking and involuntary civil commitment after a prison term. Leno tried to get the residence provision removed. He doesn't believe sex offenders are dangerous because of where they reside but where they hang out and how they pursue their victims. Senator Dean Florez also opposes the residence provision. He has said Californians will be voting on a "predator-dumping initiative," one that pushes sex offenders out of cities into rural areas.

This desire to drive the unwanteds away is centuries old. "It's an old construct in criminal justice," says David D'Amora, director of the Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior. "It's the creation of a ship of fools. You take people with criminal problems or the feeble-minded or those with mental illnesses and you load them on ships and send them out to sea where most of them would perish over time. We're re-creating some of it, essentially casting people out one way or the other."

In Colorado, there has been talk of creating a separate town for sex offenders, essentially treating them like lepers. "There is a lack of comprehension of the problem," D'Amora says. "There's a big history of segregating and isolating people that scare us, with the hope that it will solve the problem," he says. "We've learned that it doesn't. But with each new group, there's a new series of rationales. There's a tendency to recycle failed solutions." Granted, the group that society wants to banish is a scary bunch. But sending them out into some desert on their own will not make city folk safer, he insists. It will just make it harder for law enforcement to keep an eye on them.

Are there other policy options beyond residence requirements? Few laws address treatment. Pedophiles are sexually oriented toward pre- pubescent children. Prescription drugs can decrease those urges. "If the only thing we do is put them in prison, we've done nothing to erase the cravings or enhance the person's ability to resist acting upon them," says Berlin. "We still think we can treat them the same as the guy who robbed a bank or evaded income taxes. Punish him and he will stop doing it." Those offenders will get out of jail eventually. And their unnatural desires will be unchanged.

There clearly are no perfect solutions to the problem of how to deal with sex offenders once they return to society. But a growing number of academics, physicians and criminal-justice practitioners are warning policy makers that these well-intentioned residency rules may ultimately do more harm than good.

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