By Sandy . . . If every shred of evidence showed that traffic lights, while costing large amounts of resources to install, did nothing to decrease auto accidents and actually created a host of undesirable consequences, would cities still install them at every major intersection?
This is exactly what happens with the creation of what are euphemistically called “child safety zones.”
The emergence of sex-offender registration and notification laws in the mid-1990s created awareness of convicted sexual offenders living throughout communities and neighborhoods. This led to the notion that restricting these individuals from living (and often from just being) within close proximity to areas where children congregate would help prevent the sexual victimization of children. Today, 35 states have statewide residency restrictions, and many of the others allow individual jurisdictions to establish them.
This ignores the most basic fact about child molestation, a fact that has long been known but largely ignored: Children are not sexually abused by strangers lurking in parks and school playgrounds. Virtually all molestation of children is committed by those in the children’s lives in trusted positions, the majority in private residences.
The clamor for residency restrictions
Every month, new communities demand the creation of these “protected” areas for children. These are prominent headlines from the past few months.
In New York: “Cuomo seeks 1000-foot boundary for sex offenders around schools”;
In Maine: “Lawmakers seek to close loophole on residency restrictions for registered sex offenders”;
In Florida: “Possible ordinance would limit where sex offenders can live”; and
In California: “Vidak authors measure to limit where sex offenders can live”
Research shows these laws to be ineffective
The first research study done (Minnesota Department of Corrections, 2007), showed that residency restrictions would not have prevented any re-offenses.
Since then, numerous studies — academic, private, and governmental — have been done. Not one has shown a different result.
California is one of the more prominent states for establishing these restrictions. Yet their own Sex Offender Management Board makes this statement: “There is no research which supports the use of these strategies [residency and proximity restrictions], there is substantial research showing that such policies have no effect on preventing recidivism, and there is a growing body of research which indicates that residence restrictions actually increase sex offender recidivism [for violations and petty crime, not for re-offense] and decrease community safety.”
An academic study published in Sage Journals (2002) by experts in the field concludes: “… the residence restriction policy was not associated with a meaningful change in sex crime arrests or sex offender recidivism after the policy implementation date, suggesting that the residence restriction did not achieve its intended goal of reducing recidivism.”
Likewise, a comprehensive Department of Justice study, published in July 2015, states, “[T]he evidence is fairly clear that residence restrictions are not effective. In fact, the research suggests that residence restrictions may actually increase offender risk by undermining offender stability and the ability of the offender to obtain housing, work, and family support. There is nothing to suggest this policy should be used at this time.”
And finally, Kansas Department of Corrections officials are so strongly opposed to sex offender residency restrictions that they devote a full page on their website to enumerating and explaining 20 reasons why.
Problems, problems, problems
Aside from wasting resources on policy that does not even address the problem it is intended to solve and creating conditions that interfere with offender stability and rehabilitation, new problems have emerged.
Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.