In the last couple of years, the number of sex offenders living on the streets of Milwaukee has skyrocketed, from 16 to 205. The sharp increase comes as no surprise to some. There are few places for them to live.
In October 2014, the City of Milwaukee began prohibiting violent and repeat sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school, day care center or park. That left just 55 addresses where offenders can legally move within the 100-square-mile city. And their living options soon will become more limited across Wisconsin. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in February that prohibits violent sex offenders from living within 1,500 feet of any school, day care, youth center, church or public park in the state.
Cities and states continue to enact laws that restrict where convicted sex offenders can live, applying the rules to violent offenders such as pedophiles and rapists, and, in some cases, those convicted of nonviolent sex crimes, such as indecent exposure. They are doing so despite studies that show the laws can make more offenders homeless, or make it more likely they will falsely report or not disclose where they are living. And though the laws are meant to protect children from being victimized by repeat offenders, they do not reduce the likelihood that sex offenders will be convicted again for sexual offenses, according to multiple studies, including one from the U.S. Department of Justice.
In all, 27 states have blanket rules restricting how close sex offenders can live to schools and other places where groups of children may gather, according to research by the Council of State Governments. Hundreds of cities also have restrictions, according to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA). And many laws are becoming more restrictive — along with Wisconsin, they expanded last year in Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.
The restrictions can make offenders’ lives less stable by severely limiting their housing options, and can push them away from family, jobs and social support — all of which make it more likely they will abuse again, according to researchers who have studied the laws, such as Kelly Socia, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
“If [the laws] don’t work, and they make life more difficult for sex offenders, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot,” Socia said.
Some state and local governments — in California, Florida, Iowa, Georgia and Texas — are finding the laws don’t work and are changing them or, more often than not, being told by the courts to do so. Many courts, such as in California and Michigan, have found the laws to be unconstitutional for being too vague or too restrictive in impeding where offenders can live.
Psychologists who have treated sex offenders, such as Gerry Blasingame, chair of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending, say the impetus behind the laws — the belief that offenders who have been released will continue to seek out child victims who they do not know — is more perception than reality. Most perpetrators abuse children they know; just one in 10 perpetrators of child sex abuse is a stranger to the victim.
There may be merit in restricting housing for sex offenders who victimized a child they did not know, Socia said. But these laws often apply to all registered sex offenders, including anyone convicted of a sex crime, even nonviolent offenses such as indecent exposure and statutory rape.
Maia Christopher, executive director of the ATSA, said the laws are based on “the myth of the sex offender — that there is a stranger who is lurking in the bushes and grabbing people” and that they cannot be treated. Some treatment programs, such as one in Minnesota, have been found to reduce recidivism rates for sexual offenses, but researchers haven’t concluded that treatment is effective, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.
A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study in 2003, the most recent available, found that 5.3 percent of inmates released from prison after being convicted of a sex offense are arrested for another sexual offense within three years. (Although researchers generally acknowledge that the recidivism rate may be low because these crimes are underreported.)
After studying housing restriction laws for about a decade, Socia said he hasn’t seen one that has been effective in reducing recidivism. Several studies, including one from Florida and another from Minnesota, have shown the laws have no effect.
What they can do is make offenders even greater outcasts. A U.S. Department of Justice report released in October 2014 said there is fairly clear evidence that residency restrictions are ineffective, and the laws cause a “loss of housing, loss of support systems, and financial hardship that may aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk.”
After California created new restrictions in November 2006, the number of homeless offenders on parole shot up from 88 to 1,986 in March 2011, according to a report from the state’s Sex Offender Management Board. And the board soon will release a study that will show that, once homeless, a sex offender is more likely to reoffend.
“These guys that are homeless, they become desperate,” said Blasingame, a board member. “They look for opportunities.”
California stopped enforcing its blanket rule requiring offenders to stay 2,000 feet from schools and parks statewide last year, after the state Supreme Court ruled in March 2015 that the law imposed unconstitutional restrictions on paroled sex offenders in San Diego County. The restrictions made 97 percent of rental housing there unavailable to offenders. And, the court found, that contributed to homelessness, and hindered the parolees’ access to medical, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling and social services.
Following the court decision, the state started to enforce the rules on a case-by-case basis. As of October, a third of the 5,901 offenders in the state needed restrictions and the rest didn’t, the state found. From February 2015 to October 2015, the number of transient sex offenders without a permanent address fell by 20 percent, from 1,319 to 1,057.
Advocates — such as Christopher of the ATSA and Kurt Bumby, director of the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project run by the Center for Effective Public Policy that provides guidance on how to best manage sex offenders — are encouraged by efforts in some states. They point to Oregon, Vermont and Washington, where there is a more unified effort among state corrections and parole officials and nonprofits to provide a safe, structured re-entry for offenders, using monitoring, stable housing and access to treatment.
In a state-run program in Vermont, Circles of Support and Accountability, community volunteers meet regularly with high-risk sex offenders to offer support. Program participants have lower rates of recidivism.
'A Dumping Ground'
In Milwaukee, most of the 55 places where offenders can move to are single-family houses, tucked in alcoves of pricy suburban areas. City officials there passed the 2014 law out of desperation, said Alderman Michael Murphy, who voted against the ordinance.
The city had become “a dumping ground” for sex offenders, he said, because most other cities in the county had passed residency restrictions, leaving nowhere else for the offenders to go. Sixty-three percent of county residents live in the city, but 2,269 sex offenders, or 82 percent of the county’s total, live there. The rules ended up pitting cities against each other, Murphy said.
But at least one state prohibits local government from creating the restrictions: Kansas passed a ban in 2006, and New Hampshire is thinking of doing the same.
Since Milwaukee enacted its law, Dereck McClendon, who works with prisoners being released from jail, said he has watched more sex offenders released onto the streets because they have no place to go. McClendon, a program director for Genesis in Milwaukee Inc., a Christian nonprofit that helps people find work after prison, said each ex-offender needs to be given an assessment, and then help re-entering the community. If not, he said, they will inevitably start to get into trouble.
“Man, I tell you, the lack of hope these men possess,” he said. “Oh man, it kills me.”
Murphy and others in Milwaukee are pleading with Walker for a statewide solution. The law the Legislature passed this year that establishes the 1,500-foot rule for violent sex offenders also requires the state to release prisoners only to the county where they lived before, and allows a judge to rule that an offender being released from jail can live within a restricted area if there are no other options. Murphy said that helps, but doesn’t solve the problem.
The new Wisconsin law also won’t address what Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch calls “a patchwork quilt of sex offender laws” across the state, because it does not supersede local rules.
He introduced a bill that would ban local restrictions and create a 1,000-foot restriction statewide — a smaller restriction than some cities have currently.
“Having a statewide, easily understandable residency requirement will mean we can watch them,” Kleefisch said. “If they are underground or off the grid, God only knows what they’re doing.”