Residency restrictions for sex offenders popular, but ineffective

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Despite research that shows sex offender residency requirements actually hamper the rehabilitation of offenders, jurisdictions across the country continue to pass them, including Allegheny County last year.

Experts say the laws, which prohibit convicted sex offenders from living within a certain distance of schools, day care centers and parks, also don't work to help cut down on recidivism.

These types of residency restrictions have been passed in at least 30 states and thousands of municipalities nationwide. Even as prosecutors, criminal justice researchers and child advocates say they don't work, parents and legislators continue to push for the tough laws.

County Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, who was the primary author of the local bill passed in October 2007, said he wrote the law that parents wanted.

Mr. Gastgeb said he originally intended for the restrictions to apply only to offenders whose victims were children. But after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the county this month, Mr. Gastgeb learned that the law actually applies to all registered sex offenders, no matter their victims' ages.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of six sex offenders who said they could not find anywhere to live because of the restrictions.

At the time the suit was filed, Mr. Gastgeb said he would amend the law so that it applied only to sex offenders whose victims are children.

But days later, he changed his mind.

"I do think it's legally sound, and I do think we'll prevail in court," Mr. Gastgeb said. "So a certain section of the county is off-limits. That's the way it is.

"There's plenty of places for people to live."

Even if there are "plenty of places for people to live," those who have studied the issue know that residency restrictions push sex offenders outside of metropolitan areas into rural communities.

That means less access to family, housing, employment and treatment programs, said Dr. Jill S. Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., who has been studying sex crime policy for six years.

"At first glance, these laws sound good in theory," she said. "But it's much more complex than that."

The visceral reaction of "not in my neighborhood," needs to be balanced with pragmatism, she said.

Part of the problem, she continued, is that residency restrictions are often one-size-fits-all.

They often don't distinguish among the types of crimes that have been committed, Dr. Levenson said. Just because someone is designated a sex offender under state law does not necessarily mean that that person is a sexually violent predator or a pedophile.

Further, studies conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections and Colorado Department of Public Safety have not shown any correlation between sex offender recidivism and living near schools or parks.

And though residency restrictions might prohibit a sex offender from living in a certain neighborhood, they can't keep such a person from sitting across the street from a playground.

"They really do nothing at all to stop sex offenders from having access to children during the day," Dr. Levenson said.

On the other hand, there is ample scientific evidence that shows residency laws do interfere with the reintegration of sex offenders into society.

"Criminal offenders who have stable housing, stable employment and support systems in their lives, those people are less likely to go on and commit new crimes," Dr. Levenson said.

Sex offender residency restrictions were approved in Iowa in 2002, though the law was put on hold pending the outcome of a court case. In 2005, the state Supreme Court upheld the law there.

Law enforcement opposition

Almost from inception, law enforcement entities have been fighting to get it repealed, said Corwin Ritchie, the executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association.

The prosecutors' group issued a policy statement on the issue, outlining what it sees as numerous problems.

In addition, residency restrictions have made it less likely for people charged with sex offenses to plead guilty, for fear that they will lose their homes.

That means that more cases must go to trial -- potentially causing additional trauma for victims -- or more offenders go free because sex crimes can be hard to prove.

Another important factor to be considered, Mr. Ritchie said, is the vast amount of resources being spent to enforce residency laws with few tangible results.

In Iowa, according to his organization, the state has lost track of more than half of its registered sex offenders since restrictions went into place, making the jobs of probation and parole officers much more difficult and time-consuming.

Also, Department of Justice research shows that at least 90 percent of children who are abused are victimized by someone they know and trust.

"[The incidence of] stranger danger is tiny," Mr. Ritchie said. "It's tragic, but its incidence is really, really small."

And despite public opinions to the contrary, research shows that sex offenders are among the least likely criminals to re-offend, Dr. Levenson said.

But in Iowa, legislators don't want to hear any of that, Mr. Ritchie said.

"We ran into the politics of it," he continued. "No one wants to be seen as soft on sex offenders.

"It's just politically untenable."

Soon after Iowa's law went into effect, a small panel of legislators who wrote it told Mr. Ritchie that they were wrong and that it should be overturned, he said.

But those same lawmakers said they would not be the ones to do it, he said. Instead, they left it up to the courts.

"They're a fearful bunch," he said. "They've done such a good job of selling it, they can't turn and go the other way."

Advocates for repealing Iowa's law came close two sessions ago, Mr. Ritchie said. They will take up the fight again in 2009.

"The general public doesn't really care if it's good public policy," Mr. Ritchie said.

Parents insistent

The decision by Mr. Gastgeb to write the local law was influenced by listening to many parents in Mt. Lebanon speak at community meetings.

They were outraged last year to learn that a convicted sex offender was living near Howe Elementary School in the Sunset Hills neighborhood.

Last week, parents there continued to support the residency restriction law.

"It would be very difficult to have a whole lot of sympathy for sex offenders at all, having three children," said Kathy Graziano, who lives in the community.

One of the reasons she feels so strongly about the restriction is that the Mt. Lebanon School District does not have a busing system. Many students walk to and from school, she said, which makes them more vulnerable.

"There were children passing his residence at any time of the day," Ms. Graziano said. "We don't have buses . . . or designated adults that would be one more set of eyes."

She doesn't care if local sex offenders have access to housing or jobs.

"Then I suppose they should work out in a cornfield in the middle of Iowa," she said.

Another neighbor, Bill Crock, who has four children, believes the residency restriction should stick.

"From what I've read, these guys don't get better," he said. "It's a lifelong problem."

A teacher, who also lives in the community, was the only one to express mixed feelings on the issue.

She wouldn't give her name for fear of reprisal from her school district, but the woman said she felt sorry for the offenders.

Though the most important thing is to protect children, she also added that sex offenders do have to live somewhere.

That's a notion that Dr. Levenson backed up.

"When sex offenders become homeless, they do become more difficult for probation and parole to track," she said. "That, in itself, defeats the very purpose of Megan's Law."

Though most jurisdictions pass residency restrictions when they are introduced, the Kansas legislature in 2006 chose not to after listening to expert testimony during two days of hearings.

"This is not about sympathy for criminal offenders," Dr. Levenson said. "Housing instability is one of the strongest indicators of recidivism in the criminal justice literature."

If jurisdictions want to enforce some residency restrictions, Dr. Levenson suggests that it be done only after an evaluation is performed to assess the person's potential for future danger.

Parents should not rely simply on sex offender registries to keep their children safe, she said.

"With the reliance on sex offender registries, we do parents a disservice," she said. "They need to be aware of what to look for in anyone who spends time with their child."


Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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