Where Will Sex Offenders Live? Creating buffer zones around schools and other public places can make entire cities off-limits. So officials there came up with a plan that, on the surface, would seem to do the trick.
An ordinance passed last year makes it unlawful for those convicted of a serious sex crime to live within 2, feet of any school, public bus stop, day care center, park, playground "or other place where children regularly congregate. And so began the domino effect: As towns began to realize that neighboring jurisdictions might enact strict sex-offender residence rules, they scrambled to do the same, not wanting to be without an ordinance or have a relatively lax law that could serve as a welcome.
More than 50 Florida municipalities, and 20 others from around the country, requested a copy of the ordinance from Miami Beach. It's no surprise that public officials feel the need to do something. The nation was shocked last year when two Florida girls, nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford and year-old Sarah Lunde, were murdered by registered sex offenders within a two-month span.
In the wake of those and other widely publicized sex crimes in recent years, a race to clamp down on sex offenders picked up speed. RELATED Reforming Sex Offender Laws Eighteen states now have laws that prohibit sex offenders from living within a certain distance--generally ranging between 1, to 2, feet--from schools, playgrounds and other facilities where children gather.
In addition, dozens of localities are enacting their own restrictions. Lawmakers rarely argue against their passage. Jurisdictions with existing buffer-zone laws are increasing the distance regulations or adding more facilities to the list of places that are off-limits. In addition to schools, parks and day-care centers, some also are including libraries and swimming pools. As in Miami Beach, the goal seems to be to post "no vacancy" signs at the border. Where will sex offenders live? It seems that few people really care, beyond the offenders' families and the people whose job it is to work with them.
But perhaps they should. Critics of buffer-zone laws say people are kidding themselves if they think their children are safer because sex offenders live a half a mile from a school instead of, say, a quarter of a mile. Or don't live in town at all.
Fred Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has been treating sex offenders for 25 years. Much of public policy is enacted in response to a horrible crime," he adds. But it may not be good public policy. In addition to the possibility of putting children in more danger by creating a false sense of security, such laws may also hamper law enforcement's ability to do its job effectively.
In , Congress passed a law compelling states to require convicted sex offenders to register their post- release address with local law enforcement agencies. This assisted parole and probation officers, who are responsible for supervising, monitoring and tracking them.
But the public was out of the loop. Two years later, Megan's Law mandated community notification programs to provide citizens with information on sex offenders in their midst. States were given discretion in deciding what information is "necessary to protect the public" and the methods for disseminating it.
Forty-eight states currently provide registry data about sex offenders on the Web Oregon will launch its site on July 1; South Dakota releases information through local law enforcement agencies. The level of detail varies widely. Others use broad crime categories that fail to differentiate among the types of sex offenses.
For example, there are cases in which students in their late teens have been prosecuted for having consensual relationships with younger schoolmates. Those teens are unlikely to be stalking children at bus stops. But neighbors have no way of knowing whether it is a sexual predator or a teen Romeo living down the street.
Nor are the people who live near sex offenders necessarily getting constructive information about what to do with the knowledge that there's a sex offender next door. In a Chicago crackdown, investigators went to more than 80 homes sex offenders listed as their addresses--only to find that more than three-quarters of them were abandoned buildings, empty lots or not the home of the offender.
But, when the listings are accurate and detailed, the posting of registry information on the Internet gives anyone, anywhere, the ability to know the precise location of tens of thousands of sex offenders as easily as the officers in charge of supervising them. If registered sex offenders worry about the humiliation or harassment of being listed, now they may fear for their lives. In April, a Canadian man shot two registered sex offenders in their Maine homes.
One had been convicted as a sexual predator. The other was 17 when he was arrested for being in a relationship with a year-old girl, legally a minor, two weeks shy of her 16th birthday. The registry was taken down after the shootings, and the state is trying to figure out how to handle the registry in the future.
Do you feel comfortable with that? While acknowledging that the law isn't a panacea and can't keep predators from driving into Miami Beach, Dermer does think it's one of several proactive measures a city can take to protect its children.
The Justice Department's Onley understands the sentiment but is concerned that if it has the effect of driving sex offenders underground, it will interfere with supervision of convicted felons on parole and probation, who are monitored on an individual basis.
Iowa's law, for example, has made as much as 90 percent of the land area in major cities off-limits to sex offenders. As a result, 21 sex offenders wound up grouped together in a down-at-the-heels motel outside of Cedar Rapids this spring.
Others have resorted to living in their vehicles--essentially homeless and hopeless, which only puts more pressure on them to re-offend, criminal justice officials note.
In Wellington, Florida, about the only place sex offenders can legally live is in a rural, equestrian area where homes sell for a half million dollars and up.
The constitutionality of Iowa's 2,foot restriction was challenged and the law struck down by a federal district judge in However, an appeals court subsequently ruled that sex offenders' rights were superseded by the state's compelling interest in protecting its citizens.
In a separate case, the Iowa Supreme Court also upheld the law. Supreme Court to rule on the issue, the court declined to take the case. If it becomes too difficult for sex offenders to find an affordable place to live, or they are harassed and forced to move, they may stop playing by the book and change residences without notifying authorities, register false addresses or simply disappear.
The registry becomes less reliable and law enforcement has a harder time doing its job. Since Iowa began enforcing the statewide residency law last September, nearly sex offenders on the state's list of 6, are unaccounted for--twice as many as the previous whose whereabouts were unknown.
Many people also don't realize that residence laws leave out a wide swath of potential sex offenders, including sexual deviants contemplating their first attack. In about 90 percent of the cases, predators know their victims. They might even live with them. In the vast majority of sex-crime cases involving minors, the attacker does not snatch random victims off the street.
Rather, it is often a relative or a friend of the family who takes advantage of a minor. No buffer zone in the world is going to prevent that type of crime. The Iowa County Attorneys Association, which has urged legislators to repeal the residency-restriction law, also points out that sex offenders often have families and children. In a significant number of cases, they have married or reunited with their victims.
If a sex offender can't live in his home because of a buffer-zone law, the lives of spouses and children who have committed no crime are disrupted. In some cases, it could be for living, say, 2, feet from a school instead of 2, The number of advocacy groups fighting for the rights of sex offenders is small. Few elected officials openly oppose limiting where sex offenders live. Any attempt to make laws less harsh doesn't sit well with voters.
The Iowa County Attorneys Association listed 14 problems with the law. For one, research does not show that children are more likely to be victimized by strangers at the locations covered by the law than elsewhere.
And research shows no correlation between residency restrictions and a reduction in sex offenses against children or an improvement in their safety. Leno tried to get the residence provision removed.
He doesn't believe sex offenders are dangerous because of where they reside but where they hang out and how they pursue their victims.
Senator Dean Florez also opposes the residence provision. He has said Californians will be voting on a "predator-dumping initiative," one that pushes sex offenders out of cities into rural areas. This desire to drive the unwanteds away is centuries old. You take people with criminal problems or the feeble-minded or those with mental illnesses and you load them on ships and send them out to sea where most of them would perish over time.
We're re-creating some of it, essentially casting people out one way or the other. But with each new group, there's a new series of rationales.
There's a tendency to recycle failed solutions. But sending them out into some desert on their own will not make city folk safer, he insists. It will just make it harder for law enforcement to keep an eye on them. Are there other policy options beyond residence requirements?
Few laws address treatment. Pedophiles are sexually oriented toward pre- pubescent children. Prescription drugs can decrease those urges. Punish him and he will stop doing it. And their unnatural desires will be unchanged. There clearly are no perfect solutions to the problem of how to deal with sex offenders once they return to society. But a growing number of academics, physicians and criminal-justice practitioners are warning policy makers that these well-intentioned residency rules may ultimately do more harm than good.