Sex Offenders in Exile
New York Times, Editorial, 30 December 2006
Of all the places that sexual predators could end up after prison, the worst is out of sight, away from the scrutiny and treatment that
could prevent them from committing new crimes. But communities around the country are taking that risk, with zoning laws that
banish pedophiles to the literal edges of society.
There is a powerful and wholly understandable impulse behind laws that forbid sex offenders to live within certain distances of
schools, day care centers and other places that children gather. Scores of states and municipalities have created such buffer zones,
then continued adding layer upon layer to the enforcement blanket.
This has placed a heavy burden on law enforcement agencies, which already must struggle to meet exacting federal and state
requirements for registering and monitoring the ever-growing population of released sex offenders, many of whom must be tracked
for life. Lawmakers have shown no hesitation in piling on the
administrative load, but frequently are less quick to pay for additional people to do the work.
As the areas off limits to sex offenders expand to encompass entire towns and cities, if not states, the places where they can live and
work are shrinking fast. The unintended consequence is that offenders have been dispersed to rural nowhere zones, where they are
much harder to track. In confined regions like Long Island, they have become concentrated in a handful of low-rent,
few-questions-asked areas -- an unintended and unfair imposition on their wary neighbors.
Many offenders respond by going underground. In Iowa, the number of registered sex offenders who went missing soared after the state
passed a law forbidding offenders to live within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center. The county prosecutors' association has
urged that the law be repealed, for the simple reasons that it drives offenders out of sight, requires "the huge draining of scant
law enforcement resources" and doesn't provide the protection intended.
The prosecutors are right that any sense of security that such laws provide is vague at best and probably false. Just as it would feel
foolish to forbid muggers to live near A.T.M.'s, it is hard to imagine how a 1,000-foot buffer zone around a bus stop, say, would
keep a determined pedophile at bay. If children feel secure enough to drop their wariness of strangers, that would be a dangerous
outcome. And of course, no buffer against a faceless predator will be any help to the overwhelming majority of child victims -- those
secretly abused by stepfathers, uncles and other people they know.
The problem with residency restrictions is that they fulfill an emotional need but not a rational one. It's in everyone's interest
for registered sex offenders to lead stable lives, near the watchful eyes of family and law enforcement and regular psychiatric
treatment. Exile by zoning threatens to create just the opposite
phenomenon -- a subpopulation of unhinged nomads off their meds with no fixed address and no one keeping tabs on them. This may satisfy
many a town's thirst for retributive justice, but as a sensible law
enforcement policy designed to make children safer, it smacks of thoughtlessness and failure.