The Rhode Island ACLU today filed a lawsuit (PDF) in R.I. Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of a state law that makes it a felony for any person required to register as a sex offender to reside within 300 feet of any school. Across the country, experts involved in the treatment of sex offenders, as well as victims’ rights groups, have opposed sex offender residency laws as being ineffective (PDF), counter-productive, and potentially more, rather than less, harmful to public safety. The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Katherine Godin, is on behalf of three plaintiffs who face potential homelessness if the law is enforced against them.
Two of the plaintiffs, [name 1 withheld] and [name 2 withheld], reside in Warren Manor II, a Providence facility operated by NRI Community Services, a non-profit provider of mental health and substance abuse treatment. The plaintiffs have developmental disabilities and rely on the staff there to assist them with medication, meals and various other daily activities. They have lived at the facility for three or more years. If forced to leave, the complaint alleges, they are “unlikely to find and be placed in a comparable assisted living facility.” They are designated at the lowest level offender classifications, and are not subject to community notification requirements. The third plaintiff, [name 3 withheld], was convicted of a non-contact crime, possession of child pornography. He is a veteran with medical problems that would likely leave him homeless or hospitalized if he is forced to move out of his apartment, also in Providence.
Among the groups that have publicly raised concerns about broad sex offender residency laws, both locally and nationally, are the RI Disability Law Center, the RI Coalition for the Homeless, Day One Rhode Island, the American Correctional Association, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, and the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. A year before the Rhode Island law was adopted, the Rhode Island Sex Offender Management Task Force prepared a draft statement on residency restrictions that noted that “research shows that sex offenders with residential and family stability (which can be disrupted by such restrictions) are less likely to commit new sex offenses.” Shortly after Iowa became the first state in the country to implement a sex offender residency statute, the Iowa County Attorneys Association issued a statement opposing that statute, pointing out that “there is no correlation between residency restrictions and reducing sex offenses against children or improving the safety of children.” Other groups have noted that laws like these perpetuate the myth that most child sex offenses are committed by strangers, when in fact the overwhelming majority are committed by relatives and people the child knows.
Even though the plaintiffs have been in their residences for some time with the full knowledge of probation and police officials, the Providence Police Department notified them last month that if they did not move out within 30 days, they risked being arrested and charged with a felony for violating the statute.
The lawsuit argues that the law violates due process, is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and amounts to improper ex post facto punishment. The lawsuit also notes the extreme confusion that has been generated over determining how to measure the distance between a school and a residence. The ACLU is seeking a court order declaring the statute unconstitutional, and preliminary relief preventing the state from enforcing the law. A hearing on that request is scheduled to be heard Friday morning.
In addition to NRI Community Services, representatives from the RI Disability Law Center and the RI Coalition for the Homeless expressed support for the lawsuit today.