At first glance these types of exclusionary zoning laws, known as “sex offender residency restrictions,” seem like a good idea that should help keep kids safe. Why would anyone want to allow sex offenders to be anywhere near children? The problem is these laws may do more harm than good, if they work at all. In spite of good intentions, these laws have unintended consequences that can actually make it harder to track sex offenders.
These laws make it illegal for a sex offender to live within some set distance, usually 1,000 to 3,000 feet, of places where children tend to be. Think about drawing a circle that big around every school, park, day care center, playground, library, and public building. Those circles would probably cover most, if not all, of most cities and towns, and would leave very few places for sex offenders to live. The sex offenders we’re talking about can no longer be kept locked up and the system has to let them out, and so they have to live somewhere. These sex offenders have two basic choices; follow the rules and live in the few places allowed, or break the rules by trying to keep their sex offender status secret.
The offenders that follow the rules end up concentrated in the few small areas that are not restricted, or they move out beyond the city or town. With the limitations on where they can live come practical limitations on their opportunities to find work. To successfully rejoin a safe and peaceful society, these offenders, like anyone else, have to be able to make a living. A sex offender who cannot support himself is at risk of becoming homeless, and this can make it much harder for authorities to keep track of him.
When sex offenders break the rules by not reporting where they live, law enforcement loses the ability to keep track of them, and so instead of being sure than an area is clear, it becomes an unknown. Residency restrictions aren’t force fields and they can’t keep out the sex offenders that you didn’t even know were there in the first place.
But just because these laws can make it harder to keep track of ALL sex offenders, doesn’t it help to keep at least SOME of them away from schools, playgrounds, and the like?
While it might feel like that would be the case, the statistics do not show it. The Minnesota Department of Corrections released a report in April, 2007 that tracked the recidivism (reoffense rates) of 224 sex offenders who had been released between 1999 and 2002, and were then sent back to jail for another sexual offense before 2006. Of these 224 offenders, only 79 (35%) involved direct contact between offender and victim, and of those, only in 28 cases was that contact initiated within one mile of the offender’s home (the offender’s home being where a residency restriction would apply). Of those 28 cases, only 16 involved juvenile victims.
But wouldn’t at least those 16 crimes have been prevented? The report found that “[n]ot one of the 224 sex offenses would likely have been deterred by a residency restrictions law.” The report found that none of the 16 cases involving a juvenile victim involved contact initiated near a school, park, or other prohibited area. The study concluded that:
“A statewide residency restrictions law would likely have, at best, only a marginal effect on sexual recidivism. Although it is possible that a residency restrictions law could avert a sex offender from recidivating sexually, the chances that it would have a deterrent effect are slim because the types of offenses it is designed to prevent are exceptionally rare and, in the case of Minnesota, virtually non-existent over the last 16 years. Rather than lowering sexual recidivism, housing restrictions may work against this goal by fostering conditions that exacerbate sex offenders’ reintegration into society.”
Because residency restrictions have been shown to be ineffective at preventing harm to children, and may indeed actually increase the risks to kids, JWRC does not support residency restriction laws. Such laws can give a false sense of security while sapping resources that could produce better results used elsewhere.
The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center educates families and communities to prevent the exploitation of children.
For more information:
Residential Proximity & Sex Offense Recidivism in Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Corrections http://www.corr.state.mn.us/documents/04-07SexOffenderReport-Proximity.pdf
Sex Offender Residence Restrictions, Jill S. Levenson, Ph.D. - http://theparson.net/so/Levenson.pdf
Residence Restrictions and their impact on sex offender reintegration, rehabilitation, and recidivism, Jill S. Levenson, Ph.D. - http://www.csom.org/ref/ResidenceRestrictions.pdf
Statement on Sex Offender Residency Restrictions in Iowa, Iowa County Attorneys Association - http://www.iowa-icaa.com/ICAA%20STATEMENTS/Sex%20Offender%20Residency%20Statement%20Dec%2011%2006.pdf
Sex Offender Housing Restrictions, Kansas Department of Corrections - http://www.dc.state.ks.us/publications/sex-offender-housing-restrictions