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Onerous Ohio Sex Offender Restrictions Drive Some Underground

by Matt Clarke

Public officials in Cleveland, Ohio have noticed that some registered sex offenders are dropping out of sight. When the officials attempted to confirm the offenders’ registered addresses, they found they didn’t live there. The reason for this development is Ohio’s sex offender residency restrictions, which prohibit registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare facility.

Several communities have used local ordinances to expand those restrictions to include parks, libraries, churches and other locations. Such restrictions create large residency exclusion zones throughout Ohio cities that make it difficult, if not impossible, for registered sex offenders to legally find housing.

The Ohio Justice & Policy Center, a nonprofit law firm, announced in December 2010 that it would file suit if the city council in Greenville, Ohio passed an ordinance expanding residency restrictions for sex offenders so that such offenders would be effectively barred from living within the city limits. The proposed ordinance would ban sex offenders from residing within 1,500 feet of a school, preschool, daycare, library, park or playground.

“These laws are ineffective, they don’t increase public safety and, in the worst of cases, they undermine public safety by giving the community a false sense of security,” said David Singleton, director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center.

Sex offenders in Ohio are required to register their addresses and other information with the sheriff’s office every 90 days for at least 10 years. Some must do so for life. The Ohio Attorney General’s office posts the registration information on a website; the alleged purpose of the site is to inform citizens about sex offenders in their communities.

If a sex offender registers an address that is within an exclusion zone, local law enforcement can arrest and prosecute them for violating the residency restriction statutes. An alternative is to register a false address outside the exclusion zones. However, although sex offenders who undertake the registration process are not required to prove their residency, they must sign a document stating the information is accurate and acknowledge that they are subject to felony prosecution if they use a false address.

Some 166 of the over 3,000 registered sex offenders in the Cleveland area have listed the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries homeless shelter as their registered address. An investigation by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office revealed that over 100 of those offenders did not actually live at the shelter.

According to Sue DeChant, a detective with the Cuyahoga County Sex Crimes Unit, sometimes the fraud is obvious. For example, a sex offender will show up for registration at the sheriff’s office wearing expensive clothing and jewelry and carrying expensive accessories, yet register as a homeless shelter resident.

A deputy sheriff is assigned to match the list of sex offenders registered at homeless shelters with the shelter’s check-in system at least once a week. But by the time the false address is discovered, the sex offender has usually disappeared. Only two deputy sheriffs are tasked with tracking registration fraud in the Cleveland area; they compare it to a cat-and-mouse game.

All of this seems like a great waste of taxpayers’ money and resources. Studies have shown that sex offender registration and residency restriction statutes do not reduce the rate of sex crimes. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.28; Aug. 2008, p.16]. Further, sex offenders have one of the lowest rates of recidivism. Yet when they are subject to restrictive residency laws that force them underground, sex offenders are harder to track and more likely to reoffend since failure to properly register has been criminalized. In 2010, the sheriff’s office in Cuyahoga County alone filed charges against approximately 400 sex offenders due to registration violations.

“We think that these type of laws are well intended, but they are misguided and very limiting,” observed Megan O’Bryan, president and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, who is obviously not an advocate for sex offenders but rather for their victims. She noted that such laws result in a false sense of security, target only a small number of sex offenders, and ignore the fact that most sex crimes involve family members or friends, not strangers.

Rather than address the shortcomings of sex offender residency restriction laws, a new program to help Ohio sheriffs track sex offenders was implemented in December 2010. The program, called Active Contact, includes a phone and e-mail alert system that notifies sex offenders and sheriff’s offices when offenders are supposed to re-register. The system found that 15% of the contact phone numbers provided by sex offenders when they registered were no longer valid.

State Rep. Clayton Luckie, a Democrat, introduced legislation in November 2009 (HB 369) that would require sex offenders who do not have a fixed residence to wear GPS tracking devices until they obtain a registered place to live. The bill failed to pass and was re-introduced on January 20, 2011 as HB 37.

However, as noted by Loretta Ryland, coordinator of the Cuyahoga County Council on Sex Offender Issues, “[I]f you place more restrictions on sex offenders, it will drive them underground and make it more difficult for us to monitor them and keep the community informed as to where they are residing.”

Which is a common-sense argument that is apparently lost on Ohio legislators and law enforcement officials.

Sources: Cleveland Plain Dealer, WDTN

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