By Jared Janes
Edinburg’s passage last week of an ordinance restricting the activities of registered sex offenders within city limits placed it among an ever-growing list of Texas municipalities taking similar steps in the name of public safety.
Small and mid-sized cities across the state have adopted ordinances that go beyond state-imposed rules to restrict areas where sex offenders can register to live, prohibit their presence around child-oriented facilities or force them to stay indoors on trick-or-treat night. But those ordinances also have been accused of providing families a false sense of security while vilifying some sex offenders on the state’s bloated registry who pose no serious threat to children.
Many of Edinburg’s 102 registered sex offenders live near schools, parks and other areas where children typically congregate. Edinburg Police Chief Rolando Castaneda told the City Council the ordinance limits their presence around those facilities “before it enhances into something bigger that might hurt one of our children.”
The city’s ordinance was also in response to public concern from residents who live near registered sex offenders, said Detective Arturo Montemayor, who leads the Edinburg Police Department’s sex offender registration unit. Although state law establishes a “child safety zone” for sex offenders — prohibiting them from being within 500 feet of children — there are no regulations once they complete probation and parole.
“We get a lot of calls from the community saying there’s a sex offender where I live, right across the street from a playground or school,” he said. “We have to tell them, ‘If he’s not on probation or parole, he can live where he wants.’”
Under Edinburg’s new ordinance, registered sex offenders are prohibited from remaining on the premises of school or child-oriented facilities after being asked to leave, returning to the site within seven days or establishing a continual pattern of loitering on streets and sidewalks outside the building. The ordinance allows exemptions for registered sex offenders who are at the school to pick up their own children, attend classes at the school or just pass by in a vehicle.
The ordinance also requires sex offenders to stay in their residences on trick-or-treat night, turn off all their exterior lights and place a 9.5-by-11-inch sign outside that says “No Candy.”
Violation of the ordinance carries a $2,000 fine.
But Edinburg’s measure doesn’t go as far as that of some other Texas cities that prohibit registered sex offenders from outright residing within 1,500 feet of a place where children commonly gather.
In March, a Lewisville man filed suit against that city, saying the residency restrictions made it impossible for his family to buy or rent in town and forced him to live with his wife and two children in a motel room. Attorneys for [name withheld], who was convicted in 2007 of online solicitation of a minor, contend the residency restrictions are an unreasonable burden for people who have completed their court-imposed prison sentences.
But [name withheld]’s case is an example of the closed doors many sex offenders find when they try to reintegrate into society, said Mary Sue Molnar, the executive director of Texas Voices, a nonprofit organization that promotes “common sense” laws and policies for registered sex offenders. Texas is home to more than 70,000 registered sex offenders — roughly equal to Edinburg’s population — with the state’s Department of Public Safety adding more than 100 to the rolls each week.
While many people “think everybody on that list is dangerous,” it’s filled with those convicted of minor or nonviolent offenses such as Romeo and Juliet romances, Molnar said. Her group is working with a 19-year-old convicted of having sex with his girlfriend, who was about three years younger and was one month short of the age of consent.
Convicted of three counts of sexual assault of a child for each time they had sex, the 19-year-old will be required to register as a sex offender for life.
Molnar said the state’s registration process — marking virtually all offenders for at least 10 years to life — has left authorities unable to determine who is likely to re-offend.
“We would like to see Texas concentrate on the few who really pose a threat,” said Molnar, adding that residency restrictions are “feel-good laws” built on “fear and myths” that have little impact on public safety. “But right now Texas has no idea who those people are."
“Until they get that down and can distinguish who is dangerous and who is not, it’s pretty much useless.”
Molnar’s organization also says residency restrictions often give parents a false sense of security. More than 90 percent of sex offenses against children are committed by first-time offenders who, frequently, are family members or close acquaintances.
But advocates of municipality-imposed ordinances say they only fill in the gaps left by the state. Texas law prohibits all registered sex offenders from residing with children while on probation.
State Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled in 2007 that cities are allowed to restrict residency for sex offenders.
Meanwhile, sex offender ordinances across the country have been contested in court with varying results, ranging from an Indiana appeals court that upheld a ban on sex offenders visiting city parks to a federal court that struck down a Pennsylvania county’s residency restriction law.