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Residency laws for sex offenders under microscope
Restrictions aim to prevent repeat crimes, but critics say all laws do is prevent offenders from rebuilding lives.
Jennifer Smith, Newsday [Melville, NY], December 3, 2006
One after another, the laws keep coming
Across Long Island, communities concerned about the access sex offenders have to children have passed ever-tighter legislation restricting where convicted child molesters, rapists and other sex offenders can live. Nationally, 21 states and hundreds of municipalities have similar laws on the books.
But experts in sex-offender treatment and recidivism say there is little proof such measures keep communities safer or prevent sex offenders from striking again. In Iowa, for example, the number of registered sex offenders unaccounted for more than doubled after a strict residency law went into effect. And studies of supervised sex offenders in two other states indicated that where offenders lived had no impact on new sexual offenses they committed.
More harm than good
Levenson and other experts say making it harder for sex offenders to find housing can lead to stress and instability, which can increase the likelihood they will re-offend.
Law enforcement officials caution that housing restrictions can result in clustering of sex offenders in certain areas. Long Island already has more than a dozen such clusters. The laws also can create more homeless or chronically transient sex offenders, making it harder to track them.
The Long Island laws are part of a national trend that began a few years ago and snowballed in the wake of high-profile crimes, such as the killing last year of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by a sex offender in Florida, who lived nearby.
Earlier this year, Suffolk County passed a law forbidding sex offenders from living within a quarter-mile of schools and playgrounds.
Soon after, Nassau set the limit at 1,000 feet from schools and 500 feet from public parks. In November, the Village of East Rockaway added places of worship, libraries and community centers to the zone.
And Long Beach is considering an even more stringent resolution later this month that includes school bus stops and the beach in the 1,000-foot marker -- essentially banishing sex offenders from city limits.
Lawmakers behind such bills say they are common-sense edicts that place limits on sex offenders who aren't supervised once off of probation or parole. While restrictions alone won't solve the problem, Suffolk bill's author, Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor), said,
Differences between them
But some question the assumptions that shape residency restrictions, which they call a .one-size-fits-all approach to a .complex problem.
The laws in Nassau and Suffolk apply to all registered sex offenders, whether they have abused minors or adults. And regulations, such as the residency laws, aimed at preventing strangers from preying on children do not address the vast majority of sex offenses, which statistics show are committed by those knowing their victims.
An FBI study found more than 92 percent of girls 17 and under and 95 percent of boys in the same age group reporting a sexual assault identified a family member or acquaintance as the culprit.
While residency laws make less sense with respect to sexual abuse by non-strangers, Cooper said, they still would apply to cases where children are menaced by strangers.
Questioning the impact - Researchers are not so sure.
A 2004 report on sex-offender housing by Colorado's public safety department said distance markers from schools and parks may not deter recidivism.
A report the year earlier by Minnesota's department of corrections tracked 329 of the state's most serious sex offenders, knows as Level 3's. It found that the location of the homes of those offenders relative to places where children congregate had no bearing on their subsequent sex crimes.
Thirteen of the 329 re-offended. Two of the 13 did so after driving from their homes to parks several miles away.
That danger is not lost on local law enforcement officials faced with enforcing new residency restrictions.
That was echoed by Florida sex offenders Levenson surveyed in a 2005 study on their attitudes towards that state's 1,000-foot proximity law. Most surveyed said the rule wouldn't impact their risk of re-offense.
Other sex offenders surveyed noted that despite such rules, there were still children in their neighborhoods.
Local lawmakers who back residency limits often say high recidivism rates among sex offenders justify blanket restrictions. According to an oft-cited 1994 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics study, male sex offenders were four times as likely as non-sex offenders to commit a sex crime in the three years after their release from state prison.
Those who support residential restrictions for sex offenders say the laws might not be perfect, but they're an improvement over the lack of supervision in New York for offenders no longer on parole or probation.
But questions remain about the unintended consequences such laws can inflict.
In Iowa, the number of registered offenders with no known address more than doubled since a state law banning sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child care facility went into effect last year.
Suffolk and Nassau probation officials say it's too soon to tell if the new rules will cause people here to go underground. But they are concerned that shrinking areas of available housing will cluster sex offenders in neighborhoods that don't violate distance restrictions, such as one cluster in the Gordon Heights/Coram area -- if they can find a place at all.
Iowa's law -- one of the most stringent in the country -- has undermined rehabilitation of sex offenders by making it nearly impossible for them to find housing, jobs or sustain a family life, according to a statement this year from the Iowa County Attorneys Association. The prosecutors' group said Iowa's residency restriction compromised the safety of children.
It is not clear what will happen on Long Island, where distances are smaller and restrictions newly imposed. But those who treat sex offenders say the instability such rules can cause -- from constant evictions to the inability to live with family members whose homes lie within buffer zones -- can pose another threat to public safety.
--Staff writer Brandon Bain contributed to this story.
Voices in the sex offender debate
PAUL PALMIERI, COALITION OF LANDLORDS, HOMEOWNERS AND MERCHANTS
--BY BRANDON BAIN
The group recently testified against a Suffolk bill that would require landlords who rent to multiple sex offenders to register with the county's probation department.
Everybody has rights and these people [sex offenders] need a place to live. You can't just cast them aside.
Do they have this law for murderers? You know why they have this law? Because this is the big topic, this is where they're going to get their votes. That's what this is all about.
Regarding complaints that landlords rent to multiple offenders merely to maximize their profit:
I don't understand why everyone feels landlords are making tons of money. They put money into the property and everybody is always looking into what they are making.
On the Town of Babylon's recent levying of fines for code violations against 17 landlords who were renting to sex offenders:
I think the system is making enough money, they don't need to make more off of fines. They can hit you with tickets for anything ... What they'll do is fine the landlord until he has to shut down the house. Their motive is to get lots of money in fines and if they don't like who's living there they will shut the place down, and in addition they violate people's civil rights. What's to stop an offender from suing a landlord for not renting to them?
COUNCILMAN JAMES HENNESSY
--BY WILLIAM MURPHY
Hennessy (R-Long Beach) and Thomas Sofield Jr.recently introduced legislation that would create tight residency restrictions for sexual predators. The Long Beach City Council is to hold a public hearing on the measure on Dec. 19.
The U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that, and I quote, 'Sex offenders were about four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for ... sex crime after their discharge from prison.' [5.3 percent compared with 1.3 percent, within three years of release]
This being the case, Tom and I have proposed establishing 'Predator-Free Zones' within 1,000 feet of all city schools, parks, playgrounds, day care centers, school bus stops, and businesses that primarily cater to children.
We need to balance the need to protect our children from sexual predators with the rights guaranteed to all under our constitution.
We want a law that will make our city as safe as possible without infringing anyone's rights, but clearly our priority is to protect our children first, everything else is secondary.
While civil rights advocates say there is no evidence that residency restrictions improve the safety of children, they are not providing any evidence ... Until I am convinced otherwise, I will do whatever it is I have to do to protect the children of the city.
Our proposed legislation is just one tool to protect our children in places where they learn, play, and gather. Communities all around the nation are adopting similar laws and as more tools become available to protect our children from sexual predators, we will adopt them as well. This is a first step, not a last step.
DONNA LIEBERMAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE NEW YORK CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION
--BY JENNIFER SMITH
The ACLU last year filed a brief on behalf of 15 sex offenders who challenged a Binghamton law restricting residency and travel; the law later was repealed.
The prohibition on where people can live can very well lead to a situation where there is no place where people can live -- even if they pose no risk of re-offense. And there is something fundamentally wrong with that.
Of course we want to protect our kids, but the knee-jerk response we have seen in communities passing these piecemeal pariah statutes is not helpful for our public safety, and it's not the way we should go about public policy.
There are tried and true methods of assessing risk of re-offense, of preventing re-offense, of providing treatment and supervision. Yet New York State doesn't use those methods, doesn't provide treatment services, doesn't provide ongoing supervision for the population that is at risk for re-offense. Rather it squanders precious resources treating all sex offenders in many regards the same.
That doesn't protect society adequately, and it doesn't allow people who are not risks to get on with their lives and function as productive members of society.
This is a matter for the state government ... Each municipality should not be allowed to legislate its way around state law. The punishment is there. And when people are punished, and when the state government chooses how to punish people and how to provide for probation, parole or supervision, municipalities that don't have the expertise, resources or the authority should not make an end run around the legislature.
JOYCE PULLIAM, 53, OF MASTIC
--BY BRANDON BAIN
Lives across the street from a home that housed four Level 3 sex offenders who were forced to leave when it was determined the house was within a quarter-mile of a school.
"People are so disgusted with the system and the children are the ones that are being hurt."
On residency restriction laws and the house across the street:
Those laws are a joke ... They weren't supposed to be within a quarter-of-a-mile of a school, they were obviously put into that house. Nobody looked to see if there was a school, nobody cared to see if there was a school. So it took the community coming together, making a big stink with the press and the TVs and everything, for them to figure out we have to move them.
On civil confinement:
They should have some sort of civil confinement because these people are supposed to be working during the day and doing the right thing. If somebody has been out and they've been clean, so to speak, without any re-offense for maybe 10 years then maybe they can lax up on somebody like that, but they have to prove themselves first. Because they've only proven themselves to be a harm and a danger. So to me, these are nice little laws, they sound great on the books. But are they really accomplishing anything as far as protecting a child from getting molested, raped or killed?
It's not even just for protection of the kids, it's also for their protection. If they have this problem where they cannot control themselves sexually when it comes to approaching a child, then we should be giving them help in resisting the temptation that they succumb to.And society is not doing that.
JOHN L., 64, A LEVEL 2 SEX OFFENDER
--BY ERIK GERMAN
Lives in Gordon Heights, served four years in prison for possessing child pornography. A computer programmer in Patchogue at the time of his arrest, he said his wife and three children have cut off all contact with him.
I made a terrible mistake. It cost me my freedom. It cost me my family and friends. But is it fair to have it cost me my right to live?
I gave up my freedom once before and I'll never give it up again. No one can understand that unless they've lost their freedom, too.
The politicians, they are the ones who are fueling this ... They're pointing at us and saying, 'They are a threat to you, and I'll make sure they won't hurt you.' ... So what is their solution? Why don't they outline a plan for where to put us? Hate is not a solution.
On various civil confinement proposals pending in the New York State Assembly:
If a guy has served his term, how can you lock him up again? There's something fundamentally wrong with that.
On heavy media coverage of the issue:
Bad news sells papers and makes big headlines on TV. But often they're not getting any input from the offenders themselves ... If you guys didn't keep printing these stories, the issue would die off. Each day we're painted a little more sinister and it's scaring more and more people.
Pending and and current laws on LI
Sex offender residency restriction laws passed or currently being considered by LI counties:
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