The case against sex offender residency laws

Work for Smarter Criminal Laws

State House Alert Number Nine • April 12, 2010

By Chris Dornin

Residency restrictions on sex offenders harm kids

Please testify at a Senate hearing April 20 at 2:30 PM in room 103 of the State House for a bill that bars towns from imposing residency restrictions against sex offenders. The legislation, HB1484, runs counter to a 20-year American tradition of rushing sex offender laws to signature while the community still grieves a major crime against a child. The act of legislation becomes almost a memorial rite while the rage is fresh and the voters remember.

That’s where statutes named for Adam Walsh, Megan Kanka, and Jacob Wetterling came from. Florida’s draconian sex offender law passed without serious opposition in June of 2005, three months after the back-to-back lurid murders of Sarah Lunde and Jessica Lunsford. A dozen states soon copied the Florida lead, including New Hampshire.

Powerful Florida lobbyist Ron Book pushed a related residency restriction through his state legislature with little opposition after he learned his grade-school daughter had been raped repeatedly, threatened, and physically abused by her live-in nanny for several years. The resulting statute, based on one horrific case, had nothing to do with the law it triggered. Several New Hampshire towns have copied that residency law.

Here’s an unwritten and dubious rule of State Houses. Reps and senators show weakness, even disrespect for victims, when they ponder too long the possible costs and bad results of a sex offender bill. But the research is abundantly clear. One of the worst practices is a residency restriction against New Hampshire sex offenders like the Dover ordinance found unconstitutional last August. In the first year it drove most of the registered sex offenders elsewhere.

The case against residency restrictions

The goal of these policies is to protect children from predatory strangers with many victims and high recidivism rates who stalk children near playgrounds to kidnap and rape them. People who fit that stereotype are rare, but they get all the publicity.

As in Iowa, Georgia, Florida, California, and other states that have tried these restrictions, they would make hundreds of New Hampshire sex offenders homeless, break up their families, and isolate them without public transportation far from jobs, treatment, and social supports. Iowa lost track of 42% of its sex offenders under a 2,000-foot residency restriction law. The homeless rate among paroled sex offenders in California soared 800% in the first year of residency restrictions. Georgia is driving its sex offenders literally into the woods. Florida is banishing them from large coastal sections of the state into the Everglades and squalid camps below highway bridges.

Prosecutors and victims’ advocates around the country have begun opposing these laws because they paradoxically endanger children. Research shows that paroled sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rates of all criminals. And they pose the least threat of reoffense if they have jobs, loved ones and a stake in the community.

The research on residency restrictions is clear

Surveys of sex offenders confirm that these laws do vast harm to them and their families. The research also shows that children and teenagers, and not dirty old men in the bushes, commit up to half the crimes against children. In other words, half the so-called predators addressed by housing limits already attend the places the town ordinances would safeguard.

90% of sex crimes are committed by people who are not listed on any registry. Most crimes against kids are committed by peers, by family members or by teachers, coaches, priests, and other friends of the family. In fact, the arrest rate for new sex crimes by paroled sex offenders in state after state ranges between 1–5% in the first three years after prison.

A 2005 survey of 135 Florida sex offenders by researchers Jill Levenson and Leo Cotter found that residency restrictions had forced 22% of this group to move out of homes they already owned. 25% were unable to return to their homes after release from prison. Respondents agreed in varying degrees with these additional statements about the impact of residency restrictions on their lives:

  • I cannot live with supportive family members: 30%
  • I find it difficult to find affordable housing: 57%
  • I have suffered financially: 48%
  • I have suffered emotionally: 60%
  • I have had to move out of an apartment that I rented: 28%

A 2007 report by the Minnesota Department of Corrections tracked 224 sex offenders released from prison between 1999 and 2002 who committed new sex crimes prior to 2006. The first contact between victim and offender never happened near a school, daycare center or other place where children congregate. The report concluded, “Not one of the 224 sex offenses would likely have been deterred by a residency restrictions law.” The study warned that these laws isolate offenders in rural areas with little social and treatment support, with poor transportation access, and with few job opportunities. The resulting increase in homelessness makes them harder to track and supervise. “Rather than lowering sexual recidivism,” the report said, “housing restrictions may work against this goal by fostering conditions that exacerbate sex offenders’ reintegration into society.”

Child advocates and prosecutors oppose these ordinances

The Iowa County Attorneys Association issued a position paper in 2006 opposing a 2,000-foot residency restriction against sex offenders from places where kids congregate. The prosecutors said, “Law enforcement has observed that the residency restriction is causing offenders to become homeless, to change residences without notifying authorities of their new locations, to register false addresses, or to simply disappear. If they do not register, law enforcement and the public do not know where they are living. The resulting damage to the reliability of the sex offender registry does not serve the interests of public safety.”

A position paper by the Iowa Association of Social Workers says that concentrations of Iowa sex offenders are living in motels, trailer parks, interstate highway rest stops, parking lots, and tents. The site notes many other unintended consequences:

  1. Families of offenders who attempt to remain together are effectively subjected to the same restrictions, meaning that they too are forced to move, and may have to leave jobs, de-link from community ties, and remove their children from schools and friends.
  2. Physically- or mentally-impaired offenders who depend on family for regular support are prevented from living with those on whom they rely for help.
  3. Threat of family disruption may leave victims of familial sexual abuse reluctant to report the abuse to authorities, thereby undermining the intention of the law.
  4. Threat of being subjected to the residency restriction has led to a significant decrease in the number of offenders who, as part of the trial process, disclose their sexual offenses; consequently, fewer offenders are being held accountable for their actions.
  5. Loss of residential stability, disconnection from family, and social isolation run contrary to the “best practice” approaches for treatment of sex offenders and thus put offenders at higher risk of reoffense.
  6. No distinction is made between those offenders who pose a real risk to children and those who pose no known threat.

Chris Dornin is a prison volunteer, a former prison counselor, and a retired N.H. State House reporter.