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Increasingly Repressive Sex Offender Residency Restrictions Have Doubtful Benefits

by John E. Dannenberg

While politicians trample each other in their rush to enact increasingly onerous post-release residency restrictions on all manner of sex offenders, the California Legislature took pause to commission a study to measure the effectiveness of such restrictions throughout the United States. The findings were that, by and large, (1) residency restrictions did not correlate with a significant measure of reduction of recidivism and (2) the more repressive the restrictions, the more likely the affected offenders were to simply not register. The former strongly suggests that residency restrictions amount to little more than a placebo to garner public favor, while the latter confers a counterproductive reaction portending an increase in valid public safety concerns. Nonetheless, things only got worse for California sex offenders in November 2006 with the passage of the even more confining ?Jessica?s Law.?

The study reviewed sex offender registration, community notification, civil commitment, residency restrictions, and risk assessment/treatment/supervision. There are 550,000 registered sex offenders in the United States, 100,000 of whom live in California.
Although there is a national registration law (Jacob-Wetterling Act of 1994), fully 20% fail to comply. As of April 2006, California had 87,060 registrants, but another 17,764?s whereabouts were unknown. Most states also have a form of ?Megan?s Law,? a requirement for the criminal justice system to post all sex offenders? identification, criminal history and addresses on the Internet. Some locales send the police door-to-door to warn neighborhood residents of a newly-arrived offender.

Beyond serving time for their crimes, sex offenders in 18 states are additionally subject to ?civil commitment,? a euphemism for subsequent incarceration run by the state?s mental health department (often using prison guards for security). To qualify, one must be declared a ?sexually violent predator? (SVP), a subjective term whose definition varies from state to state, but which has no medical meaning or significance. California?s system involves screening by both prison and mental health authorities prior to parole, a court trial for commitment, and a biennial recommitment review. [See, e.g., PLN, Dec. 2006, p.20: How to Exit California?s Sexual Predator Prison: Refuse Treatment.]

The principal bone of contention, however, is the residency restriction for released offenders. In some locales, they restrict sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of any place where children congregate, such as schools, daycare centers, and parks. Other jurisdictions have increased this exclusion zone to 2,500 feet (1/2 mile), a restriction so encompassing as to literally force a mass exodus of sex offenders from compact urban communities into rural areas.

Lawsuits abound challenging both the constitutionality of such a post-sentence NIMBY (?not in my back yard?) exclusion as well as the ex post facto application to those long off parole. This devastating feature alone has caused many sex offenders to simply go underground. Curiously, the study found that in the few locales where the effectiveness of such banishment had been evaluated, there was no impact on recidivism rates.

This then leads to the question of risk assessment, treatment and supervision of pedophiles. Although California sex offenders have a lower two-year rate of parole violation (45%) than non-sex offenders (55%), the recidivism rate for rapists is 18.9% while the rate for child molesters is 12.7%. But prediction of which releasees will reoffend is far from an exact science. The best that 23 states have been able to do is to require community psychological treatment programs for the highest risk offenders and then monitor their movement with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) bracelets. Indeed, six states have enacted lifetime GPS monitoring, the average daily cost of which is $10/offender.
California?s new Jessica?s Law requires GPS monitoring of all sex offenders while on parole (currently near 10,000), at an estimated annual cost of $88 million.

While it may be fashionable to dissuade potential sex reoffenders by enacting vastly increased sentences, no public goal is served by inducing parolees to spurn post-release treatment by unwittingly driving them underground. In truth, the new restrictive residency laws appear to do little more than assuage political vigilantism. See: The Impact of Residency Restrictions on Sex Offenders and Correctional Management Practices: A Literature Review, Marcus Nieto and Prof. David Jung, Hastings Law School, California Research Bureau No. 06-008 (August 2006).

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