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Residency Restrictions Cause Homelessness to Increase Among Registered Sex Offenders in Arizona

It is well known that restrictions on where registered sex offenders (RSOs) are permitted to reside in Miami resulted in the creation of an RSO camp under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. PLN recently reported that the RSOs who were removed from that camp and offered temporary housing leases were thrown back onto the street if unable to pay rent after the leases began to expire in July 2010. Those evicted RSOs didn't even have the causeway to return to as that area had been sealed off and posted with "No Trespassing" signs in March 2010. Less well known is that many other states with residency restrictions on RSOs face similar problems. In 2012 The Arizona Republic conducted an eight month review of gaps in monitoring and registering RSOs.

A 129-page study published by Arizona State University in 2006 found that about three-quarters of the RSOs in Phoenix didn't live at the address they had registered or hadn't registered at all. The report made a series of recommendations to make the sex offender registry more accurate and effective.

"The system was completely and utterly dysfunctional the way it was set up," according to ASU professor of criminology and criminal justice Charles Katz, the lead researcher in the study.

Since the report's recommendations have, for the most part, not been adopted, not much has changed since the report was published.

The problem in Phoenix and other locales placing restrictions on RSOs is that the restrictions themselves contribute to homelessness. A 2011 report by the California Sex Offender Management Board reported a 101% increase in the number of homeless RSOs in California one year after the state enacted a statewide restriction against RSOs living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks. By March 2011, one-third of California RSOs on parole were transients. The board had advised against enacting blanket restrictions on sex-offender housing on the grounds that they would increase homelessness among RSOs and this would cause the state to lose track of them. The recommendation was ignored by the state and by local government officials, who are allowed to add their own restrictions to the statewide restrictions.

There is insufficient political courage to change the laws in California, Arizona, Florida or any other state with residency restrictions on RSOs. Politicians are afraid of appearing soft of sex offenders.

"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," said Jill Levenson. Levenson is an associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida and a leading researcher on the topic. "Nobody want to be the public face of leniency for sex offenders," Levenson said.

Arizona state laws are not as strict as some other states. A sex offender leaving an Arizona prison is required to register an address within 10 days. Every 90 days, homeless RSOs must reregister the locale they will reside at, such as a street corner or abandoned lot. Some sex 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 RSOs and may only have one Level 3 RSO in their complex.

The Phoenix Crime-Free multi-Housing Program discourages landlords from renting to any convicted felon. Phoenix city ordinances prohibit trespassing, loitering and camping on the street. Thus, homeless RSGs, like all of the homeless in Phoenix, are violating the law unless they live in shelters.

But Phoenix shelters bar RSOs from residing there. Prior to 2007, Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) in downtown Phoenix housed many RSOs. That year, a Level 3 RSO living at CASS sexually assaulted a girl in a nearby park. Threatened by their donors with a loss of financial support should they continue to house RSOs, CASS banned them from sleeping there overnight. However, many homeless RSOs register transient addresses near CASS as CASS continues to offer daytime social services to RSOs such as hot meals, toiletries, showers, medical treatment, dental services, mental health care, substance-abuse counseling, sex-offender counseling, job training and education programs.

Despite the fact that living on the streets violates city ordinances, law enforcement officers encouraged RSO to register as residing at nearby street corners after CASS threw them out because it helps police track them. Even easier to track are the small minority of RSOs wearing GPS tracking devices. Some Level 2 and 3 RSOs live in constant fear since their photos are posted on the Internet along with their registered homeless "addresses." That makes it easy for vigilantes or harassers to locate homeless RSOs.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that the likelihood of RSOs committing another sex offense was 5.9% nationally--one of the lowest recidivism rates among ex-felons--and a local study found the recidivism rate of Phoenix RSOs to be around 6%. Nonetheless, some people are nervous about the idea of registering homeless RSOs to street corners.

"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 lack of homeless shelter space leaves RSOs with little choice other than to rent or live on the street. But RSOs have a hard time getting a job that would allow them to earn money to pay rent. RSOs don't even fare well against other applicants for employment with previous nonsexual felony convictions. Even fast food restaurants won't employ RSOs because children are among their customers.

Some Phoenix-area apartments, hotels and motels are willing to allow RSOs to reside there, but often at inflated prices difficult to pay without a well-paying job. One Phoenix probation officer said a studio apartment can cost a RSO $700 a month in rent, far beyond the means of most RSOs.

Clearly, onerous registration and residency restriction laws are part of the problem, not the solution to effective monitoring of RSOs. If politicians would focus more on results and less on political posturing, monitoring of RSOs could be accomplished without seriously disrupting or ruining their lives. Unfortunately, it appears that, under the guise of public safety, registration and residency restrictions are being used to punish RSOs after they complete their sentences.

"Politicians really need to bite the bullet and recognize that ... public hysteria does not lead to good public policy," said the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida's Jeanne Baker who fought to reduce residency restrictions on sex offenders.

Source: Arizona Republic

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