By Eric Dexheimer . . .
KJ grew up in Meadows Place, a 1-square-mile Houston bedroom community of modest 1970s and ’80s tree-shaded homes. In late 2007, she returned as a 33-year-old seeking to settle in a community she recalled warmly.
“I have great memories of this place,” she said. KJ — she asked that her name not be used for fear of losing her job; she was fired when her previous employer learned of her background — and her husband purchased a four-bedroom house near her childhood home. Her two boys attended her old elementary school, a three-minute walk away.
The bottom fell out four years later. A baby sitter the couple had hired in 2003 contacted police and revealed the two had pursued her for sex when she was 15. According to police reports and court records, KJ had left after the baby sitter said no. But, while she was at work, her husband later had sex with the girl.
Called into the police station in late 2011 and confronted with the by-then 23-year-old’s charges, KJ’s husband confessed. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation. KJ received 4 years of probation for indecency with a child by exposure as part of a deferred adjudication deal, and she was required to register as sex offender.
Although many sex offenders on probation are prohibited from being around children, KJ wasn’t. She maintained custody of her sons, whom she may pick up and drop off at school and activities.
Yet when she showed up to check in at the Meadows Place police station, she said police refused to register her as a resident and informed her she couldn’t live in her home. A city ordinance prohibited registered child sex offenders from living within a certain distance of places where children gathered; her house was too close to a city pool.
“But I already live here,” she replied.
“You can’t anymore,” she was told. In an unfolding legal battle, KJ stands to become the first Texas homeowner evicted from her own house for violating one of the ordinances.
State and local laws restricting where registered sex offenders may live after completing probation and parole have been around for a decade or longer. Many passed in the wake of a flurry of high-profile “memorial laws” named for children abducted and killed by strangers. While no Texas statute restricts where sex offenders can reside once they are released from state supervision, about 80 municipalities have adopted local ordinances prohibiting registered child sex offenders from living up to 2,500 feet near where children gather.
Violations typically come with a fine between $500 and $2,000 per day. Yet officials concede the restrictions rarely are invoked as criminal cases. More often, they function as a legal keep-out sign warning sex offenders they are unwelcome.
“It puts everybody on notice that we’re not going to tolerate these cases,” said Hutto Police Chief Byron Frankland, who pushed for the Austin suburb to adopt a 1,000-foot residency restriction soon after being hired this year. . . .
In West Lake Hills — where a city ordinance prohibits registered child sex offenders not only from living within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and youth centers, but also school bus stops — council members must quiz an applicant about his relationship with his mother before granting an exemption, among other criteria. Advocates say such procedures are unlikely to result in many applications or approvals.
Residency restrictions reflect a belief that those convicted of sex offenses are uniquely dangerous and incapable of reform. “There is convincing documented evidence that sex offenders are sexual predators who present an extreme threat to public safety, are likely to use physical violence in the commission of their crimes and have a higher recidivism rate than persons convicted of other crimes,” states the ordinance in the North Texas town of Venus.
As the number of registered sex offenders in Texas approaches 90,000, however, studies have found many of those assumptions to be false. Studies show the vast majority of sex offenses are committed against family members or acquaintances, and that convicted sex offenders appear less likely to repeat their crime than those convicted of other offenses.
That means laws based on offenders grabbing random children off playgrounds have little practical effect on public safety. “The research does not support that residency restrictions, or exclusion zones, have any beneficial impact on safety, or recidivism, or any other objective you’re trying to achieve here,” Michele Deitch, of the University of Texas’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, told state legislators this spring. “In fact, there’s a growing body of research that shows residency restrictions increase sex offender recidivism rates” by driving offenders away from family and other support systems. . . .
Yet the fear of child sex predators persists, and many citizens support residency restrictions — the wider the better. In a 2015 study, researchers from Nebraska asked residents their opinion of the state law prohibiting sex offenders from living within 500 feet of schools and day care facilities.
Sixty percent said 500 feet was too close. Half of those thought the buffer should be at least a mile; more than 10 percent simply said registered offenders should be forced to live “somewhere far away.”