By Jacob Sullum . . . Since 2005, New York has prohibited people on “level three” of the state’s sex offender registry from living within 1,000 feet of a school. In New York City, as the above map shows, those “buffer zones” cover nearly all residential areas. Because the state requires registrants to find legally compliant housing before they leave prison, these restrictions mean they may remain behind bars long after they are eligible for conditional release and even after they have completed their original sentences.
That is what happened to Angel Ortiz, who in 2008 was accused of “sexually threatening a pizza delivery man during the course of a robbery designed to secure money in order to obtain drugs.” After Ortiz pleaded guilty to robbery and attempted sexual abuse, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison plus five years of parole. He became eligible for supervised release after serving about eight and half years. But as New York Times reporter Adam Liptak notes, Ortiz remained in prison because all of the housing options he suggested—his mother’s apartment in New York City, along with “dozens of alternatives, including some in upstate New York”—ran afoul of the 1,000-foot rule.
Even after Ortiz had served the full 10 years of his original sentence, he remained in prison. All told, he served an additional 25 months because of New York’s residence restrictions.
Last month, the Supreme Court declined to review a New York Court of Appeals decision that upheld Ortiz’s continued incarceration. While agreeing that the case “does not satisfy this Court’s criteria for granting certiorari,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor outlined the “serious constitutional concerns” raised by New York’s residence restrictions, which she suggested “may not withstand even rational-basis review.”
Since that standard of review is highly deferential, requiring only a “rational connection” between a restriction on liberty and a “legitimate state interest,” Sotomayor’s assessment is a strong statement about the weak justification for residence restrictions like New York’s. But it is consistent with the conclusions of criminologists, who have found scant evidence that the policy actually protects public safety. Several courts and government agencies have concurred that residence restrictions do not work as advertised and may even be counterproductive, undermining rehabilitation and making recidivism more likely.
In a 2017 report that Sotomayor cited, the Justice Department noted that there is “no empirical support for the effectiveness of residence restrictions.” It added that the policy may cause “a number of negative unintended consequences” that “aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk.”