Which makes us safer? Residency restrictions or enhanced rehabilitation for former sexual offenders?

Originally published in Criminal Legal News

By Sandy . . . Twenty years ago, at age 23, William committed a serious sexual crime for which he spent three years in prison and participated in an intensive treatment program – four hours a day, five days a week. He confronted the demons of his own childhood molestation and emerged, literally, a new man. After release, he met and married Ashley, and they have three children. Living in Florida, where residency restrictions against registered persons are strict and unforgiving, the family moved multiple times and were often separated and at times homeless due to these restrictions.

At one point of relative stability, they rented a home close to William’s job but in a restricted area. He would rush home after work, help with dinner, homework, playtime and bedtime rituals for the children, and then he would leave – he could not legally be in the home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. – and drove 12 miles to the end of a dirt road, an area outside of a restricted area, and slept in his van, sweating through hot Florida nights.

As ludicrous as this situation is, even more ludicrous is the pretense that it makes anyone safer, which is, after all, the premise upon which residency restrictions and restricted areas for registered sexual offenders is based.

Beyond ludicrous, however, is the only way to describe the situation of Gavin, whose family lives in Iowa. That state’s law defines where a registrant lives as where he sleeps. Gavin reports that he could stay in his home, which is in a restricted area, with his family as many hours a day as he could stay awake. IF the purpose of these laws is what legislators state, to protect the public from dangerous persons, then this law is saying that Gavin and countless others pose a potentially greater risk asleep than they do when awake.

Studies show that the more stability a former sexual offender has, the more effective rehabilitation will be. That fact alone makes our nation’s obsession with restrictions and exclusions for those with sexual crime convictions unfathomable.

Testimony from those who were released from incarceration following a sexual crime conviction show how de-stabilizing these restrictions can be.

  • Matthew: I was considered homeless when I got out of prison and was placed in a half-way house by probation. I had a public safety factor put on me which restricts where I could move. I finally found a home, but now probation has waited 30 days just to see it and will make me wait till after Christmas to get out of the half-way house and be able to live at my home that I am still paying rent on even though I am not living there.
  • Lazaro: I am one that just bought a home and even then, the city of Parma, Ohio, found a way to have me legally taken out of my home. I have fought all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, and they upheld the decision for me to be kicked out of my home that I bought and paid for. I did everything correctly, and still they legally found a way to do an injustice.
  • Jeff: For me I find it really difficult to find good housing. Everyone released from prison here is considered a level two, which triggers the local police department to send flyers to your neighborhood. Some housing communities want to have nothing to do with that.
  • Tom: I live in Rhode Island. I bought a condo prior to the enactment of the 300’ residency law. I was told I could not live there again because I wasn’t living there when I committed my crime (I was renting it out at that time). So, when searching for housing after my arrest, I could not move into a property I owned.

These examples are but the tip of a very nasty iceberg. In a national survey on the subject, 21 states were found to have state law forbidding a person on the registry from living within a certain distance, anywhere from 500 feet up to 2,000 feet, of various locations, primarily schools and child-care facilities. Some include the phrase “or anywhere children congregate,” which is open to limitless interpretations. Ten of the states restrict everyone who is on a sexual offense registry, no exceptions. The other eleven have varying degrees of specificity such as being on probation, being a child sex offender, or being a level 2 or higher. For these 21 states, the restrictions apply in every corner of the state.

Additionally, almost all other states allow for individual cities, towns, and counties to make their own restrictions regarding where registered persons may live. In 2007, An estimated 400 municipalities had enacted local zoning ordinances restricting where registered sexual offenders could live. Just in New Jersey, at least 113 municipalities had local residency restrictions. For example, the township of Jackson, New Jersey, restricts sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any park or playground, movie theater, or amusement park. In Florida, where, in 2007, more than 60 municipalities had residency restriction ordinances, registered offenders could not live within specified distances of parks, playgrounds, churches, libraries, bus stops or any other place where minors normally congregate. In Snellville, Georgia, the city council implemented an ordinance banning sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school, over twice the distance of the restricted area under the state’s residency restriction law.

While no more recent comprehensive report seems to have been compiled, evidence is clear that the number of local jurisdictions enacting such ordinances has increased significantly.

There are, however, glimmers of hope amidst this more-than-gloomy landscape.

Citing empirical evidence, the Kansas Department of Corrections has posted a blistering indictment against the use of residency restrictions.

Some jurisdictions have eliminated their residency restriction requirements due to lawsuits brought and won on behalf of registered individuals.

A handful of other have scaled back or eliminated them due to negative fallout such as marked increases in homelessness and failure to register cases. The entire state of Arkansas is being forced to look at their restrictions in light of a number of problems that the restrictions have caused. Jennifer Dean Jordan, an area manager of Arkansas Community Correction, said that in order to help the homelessness issue, current laws need to be reviewed. “‘The first step is to conduct research to determine if residence restrictions are actually doing what the legislative goal was,’ she said. ‘And that is to protect children.’”

This is what needs to be done in every state, city, and town that legislates where those on sexual offense registries may and may not live and in some cases even be or pass through. The research has been done; they just need to find it. There is no shred of evidence that supports the use of residency, distance, or proximity restrictions for those with past sexual crimes as effective public safety strategy.

NONE.

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Sandy 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.

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