Spurred by a growing number of homeless registered sex offenders, some states, cities and towns have begun relaxing stringent restrictions on where sex offenders may live – a trend supported by public officials and advocates who argue that such a strategy actually creates a safer environment for everyone.
Rather than posing a greater threat to the community, registered sex offenders are easier for authorities to track under the lesser restrictions because they have more latitude to find stable housing – which in turn lowers the risk they will re-offend, according to officials who have successfully lobbied to relax so-called sex offender “buffer zones.”
Beginning in the mid-1990s, states and cities began passing laws that limited where registered sex offenders could live, preventing them from settling near schools, playgrounds, day care centers and other places where children congregate. The idea, experts said, was to keep sex offenders from committing new crimes – even those whose original offenses did not involve minors. About 30 states and thousands of cities and towns nationwide now have such laws, while other jurisdictions continue to enact them.
However, a growing number of communities are eliminating or scaling back housing restrictions because research reveals they don’t prevent repeat offenses. Rather, officials say, they make it so difficult for registered sex offenders to find suitable housing that many become homeless, making them harder to track and straining homeless support programs and resources.
“You track where they live, you check in on them, but you let them live at home, where they’re comfortable and stable,” said Scott Crevier, a councilman in DePere, Wisconsin, south of Green Bay. DePere eliminated its 500-foot sex offender housing buffer in 2013 after reviewing data that indicated the restriction was not effective. “I feel we’re actually safer than a lot of other towns in the state that have them,” he said.
A 2013 study of housing restrictions in Michigan and Missouri by the U.S. Department of Justice found that such policies “had little effect” on sex offender recidivism. Experts have also cited research that indicates the vast majority of sex offenses involving children are not committed by strangers, but by individuals who have an established connection to the victims such as family members, teachers and coaches.
The problem of sex offender buffer zones is especially acute in the nation’s largest cities and most heavily-populated states. For example, three residents of an outdoor encampment in Florida, represented by the ACLU, sued Miami-Dade County in October 2014, claiming the county had forced them and hundreds of other sex offenders into homelessness due to residency restrictions that left them “unable to locate stable, affordable housing.” See: Doe v. Miami-Dade County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:14-cv-23933-PCH.
Miami-Dade County has long been criticized for its residency restrictions. In 2006, a camp under the Julia Tuttle Causeway grew to include more than 100 homeless sex offenders, as there was nowhere else they could legally reside. Offenders who were removed from the camp and offered temporary housing leases were thrown back onto the street if they couldn’t pay rent when the leases began to expire in July 2010. [See: PLN, March 2011, p.13; Dec. 2009, p.14; July 2009, p.36; June 2008, p.1].
Because the county had since closed the area under the causeway and posted “no trespassing” signs, the evicted offenders had literally nowhere else to go, forcing Miami-Dade officials to eventually eliminate some of the county’s 2,500-foot buffer zones.
In July 2014, commissioners in Palm Beach County, Florida voted to allow sex offenders to live closer to schools and other places with concentrations of children, largely in response to a lawsuit filed by an offender who claimed the county’s housing restrictions rendered him homeless.
“We realized the law was costing the taxpayers money [for homeless services] and was causing more problems than it was solving,” said county attorney Denise Nieman.
In 2012, the Arizona Republic conducted an eight-month review of gaps in monitoring registered sex offenders in Phoenix. A 129-page study previously published by Arizona State University (ASU) found that about three-fourths of the sex offenders in Phoenix either did not live at the address they had registered or had not registered at all.
“The system was completely and utterly dysfunctional the way it was set up,” said ASU professor Charles Katz, the study’s lead researcher.
Further, a 2011 report by the California Sex Offender Management Board cited a 101% increase in the number of homeless registered sex offenders within one year after the enactment of a statewide buffer zone that prohibited sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks. By March 2011, one-third of all registered sex offenders in California were listed as transient. [See: PLN, Sept. 2014, p.20].
The main obstacle to easing sex offender housing restrictions in California and elsewhere is the perception that reducing or eliminating buffer zones makes politicians look soft on crime.
“It’s an ongoing dilemma, and I think that legislators grapple with it. Researchers grapple with it. I’m not sure that there’s a quick or easy answer,” stated Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida and a leading researcher on the topic. “Nobody wants to be the public face of leniency for sex offenders.”
David Prater, district attorney in the county that includes Oklahoma City, agreed. “No politician wants to be labeled the guy who lessens restrictions on sex offenders,” he said. Prater, along with other Oklahoma prosecutors, has tried – without success – to convince the state to relax its 2,000-foot buffer zone.
In August 2014, the Dallas City Council abandoned a proposal to institute residency restrictions for the nearly 4,000 registered sex offenders living in the city. Councilman Jerry Allen spearheaded the proposal, but said he reversed his position and lobbied against the restrictions after he “looked for research” to support his proposal but found none.
In Arizona, registered sex offenders must re-register the location where they are staying every 90 days, even if that location is a street corner or an abandoned lot. Some offenders are prohibited from residing within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or child-care facility; apartment owners are prohibited from renting more than 10% of their units to registered sex offenders. The Phoenix Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program discourages landlords from renting to any convicted felon.
Because city ordinances prohibit trespassing, loitering and camping on the street, the homeless in Phoenix are at risk of violating the law unless they live in shelters. But many shelters banned sex offenders after a 2007 incident in which a registered sex offender living at Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) in downtown Phoenix sexually assaulted a girl in a nearby park. CASS continues to offer daytime social services to sex offenders, such as hot meals, showers, medical and dental treatment, mental health care, substance abuse counseling, job training and education programs, but not housing.
The U.S. Department of Justice has found that the likelihood of registered sex offenders committing another sex offense was just 5.9% nationally – one of the lowest recidivism rates among ex-felons – and an Arizona study found the recidivism rate of registered sex offenders in Phoenix to be around 6%.
“Not that every sex offender is a raving maniac who’s going to do awful things, but I would hate to prove that this is a problem because something terrible happens,” said David Bridge, managing director of the Human Services Campus, a central Phoenix nonprofit that assists the homeless. “Registering them to street corners – if the intent of the law is public safety, I’m not sure how that increases public safety.”
The city of Elkhorn, Wisconsin passed a law in October 2014 banning sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of places such as schools and parks. Mayor Brian Olson said local residents applauded the policy, imposed by the city council in response to an influx of sex offenders released from the nearby county jail.
“I think people were afraid to speak up on the issue, and that there was a bit of a sigh of relief,” Olson said. “We’re just trying to keep our kids safe, and just did what a lot of other communities around the state have done.”
But critics say such residency restrictions, while politically popular, provide a false sense of security because they make it more difficult for registered sex offenders to find suitable, stable housing, which would help them avoid re-offending.
“Politicians really need to bite the bullet and recognize that ... public hysteria does not lead to good public policy,” observed Jeanne Baker, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Florida.
Sources: Arizona Republic, Wall Street Journal
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login