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California Communities Made Less Safe as Sex Offender Housing Restrictions More Strictly Enforced

A December 2008 report by the California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) has found that increased enforcement of laws adopted to protect communities from registered sex offenders has had the unintended effect of making those communities less safe from those offenders.

Created in 2006, CASOMB was charged with providing state legislators and other policy makers with an assessment of sex offender management practices, and making recommendations consistent with its vision of decreasing sexual victimization and increasing community safety. In its report, Homelessness among Registered Sex Offenders in California: The Numbers, The Risks and The Response, CASOMB examines the practical effect of the voter-approved passage of Prop. 83 (in November 2006) and subsequently enacted local ordinances restricting the residency of sex offenders. It found that implementation of those residency restrictions had led to a significant increase in the number of sex offenders registering as transient -- most dramatically among Parolees, the only population of sex offenders where the residency restrictions of Prop. 83 have been consistently enforced.

CASOMB’s report observes, moreover, that the rise in homelessness among sex offenders may be attributed to causes other than the various residency restrictions imposed by state and local laws. Specifically, it notes that California’s registration and community notification laws -- which make it possible for citizens to pinpoint the location of sex offenders -- have enabled neighborhoods to mobilize to oust sex offenders from their midsts. As a consequence, sex offenders have even fewer housing options available to them.

CASOMB report begins by asking, pointedly, why should we care whether sex offenders are homeless? Its answer: “The rise in homelessness among sex offenders needs attention because it is so closely associated with an increased level of threat to community safety.” That answer derives, in CASOMB’s view, from common sense as well as from empirical evidence. As to the latter, CASOMB makes the case that, although “there is no known study that empirically examines the risk of homelessness on sexual re-offense,” nonetheless “many researchers and policy makers are of the strong opinion that lack of housing in a sex offender population will lead to higher levels of risk and will decrease public safety.” It cites to studies showing, on the one hand, that unstable housing has been linked with a lack of social support and with difficulty finding employment – both of which are dynamic risk factors for sexual reoffense -- and, conversely, that stable housing leads to stable employment and social support, factors that reduce the risk of reoffending.

The CASOMB report goes on to note some of the innovative housing methods employed by other states in an effort to reduce homelessness among sex offenders. Of those, Colorado’s shared living arrangements -- where two or three sex offenders live together in a home which they rent or own, and where a treatment provider and supervising officer conduct frequent site checks -- have proven to be an effective containment modality for high-risk sex offend-ers. Significantly, a study of these shared living arrangements has shown that, contrary to conventional wisdom, proximity of sex offender residency to areas where children regularly congregate has no impact on recidivism. If this Colorado-based finding extends to California, the basic premise of Prop. 83, i.e., that community safety is enhanced by restricting sex offenders from living within a 2,000-foot zone of schools or parks where children regularly gather, is cast into considerable doubt.

CASOMB concludes by underscoring the need for the development of an effective, state-wide housing policy which makes stable, affordable and appropriate housing available to sex offenders. Among its recommendations is the use of incentives to local governments and private entities to develop long-term and short-term housing for sex offenders. The report is available on PLN’s website.

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