I got a solution, get rid of the residency restrictions, and the online registry, and most, if not all of the problem goes a way. If someone commits another crime, punish them, just like we do everyone else. Like someone once said: "If you want a different result, try something different, otherwise you will continue to have the same results," or something like that.
By Michelle Ye Hee Lee
Arizona is not unique in its struggles to monitor and house sex offenders. No state does it well, experts say.
An eight-month review by The Arizona Republic found troubling gaps in Arizona's system of registering and monitoring sex offenders, with overlapping laws and restrictions contributing to homelessness among high-risk offenders.
In central Phoenix and Tucson, many homeless sex offenders who are required to provide an address to authorities register to street corners because they have nowhere else to go. That leaves many homeless offenders largely unmonitored despite authorities' efforts to track them.
States from California to Massachusetts see similar situations but are taking different approaches to try to solve the politically vexing policy problem. None has found a comprehensive solution.
"I can't really give you any places" that do a good job managing the problem, said Andrew Harris, associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, whose research focuses on sex-offender housing restrictions. "What I can give you is the lessons we're learning."
The issue first received national attention in 2008 amid reports of a large Florida sex-offender colony -- more than 70 people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union -- forming under a Miami causeway. It was one of the few locations in Miami-Dade County where registered sex offenders could legally reside after local jurisdictions enacted restrictions banning them from neighborhoods and the central city.
The ensuing debate focused attention on sex-offender housing restrictions, their sometimes unintended consequences and how society deals with the problem.
Since then, sex offenders in other states have been found registered to dumpsters and living in tents in the woods.
Given the increasingly dire housing situations some sex offenders face, it is just a matter of time until the nation sees a major legal challenge of housing restrictions, Harris said. "I think we'll see a case at the (U.S.) Supreme Court within the next five years," he said.
- Why 5 years and not now? This has been an issue for many years!
No easy answers
Registering sex offenders upon their release from prison became the national strategy in the mid-1990s, when a federal law was passed after lobbying by a child victim's family. The intent was to track sexual offenders and, in theory, protect the public.
- Tracking people will never "protect" everybody 100% of the time, that is a fact, but it's a fact that politicians ignore and don't believe. You will never be able to legislate crime a way, period!
But years later, authorities in most states still stumble over inevitable complications from this approach: Who keeps track and how? Should all offenders be treated alike? How should authorities determine who is likely to commit sex offenses again? What policies are likely to prevent or encourage re-offending? What rights do offenders have after serving their sentences? How should states address offender homelessness without appearing to be soft on crime?
- Do we track drug dealers, gang members, etc, and determine who among them will likely re-offend, and lock them up or force them to obey ever changing draconian laws? No, so why do we treat ex-sex offenders different than any other criminals when they have one of the lowest recidivism rates around? It's pure madness and nothing more than a moral panic, like the old witch-hunts in Salem, MA.
In many states, additional residency restrictions enacted at the local level add a layer of ordinances, which are difficult to sort out and place even more limits on where sex offenders can live.
Florida, for example, has more than 150 local statutes restricting housing options for sex offenders, according to that state's Department of Corrections. Those restrictions leave small pockets of acceptable living areas where sex offenders congregate in large numbers.
Other states have similar scenarios, among them California, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Washington.
- And in each state you have a homeless problem among ex-sex offenders.
The California Sex Offender Management Board four years ago recommended against blanket restrictions on sex-offender housing, finding that they increased the likelihood that offenders would become homeless and that the state would lose track of them. The recommendation was ignored. A state law still bars sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks, and local jurisdictions can piggyback their own restrictions.
- They are ignored because if a politician looked at them and possibly changed them, the sheeple would be out in force, carrying pitch forks, and calling for people to be fired, imprisoned, or worse.
The number of homeless sex offenders soared in California after statewide restrictions took effect in 2006. A year later, offenders registered as transient increased by 101 percent, according to a 2011 report by the Sex Offender Management Board. As of March 2011, nearly one-third of paroled California sex offenders were homeless, the report said.
There is no apparent political will in California to change the law, just as there is little stomach in states like Arizona to solve the problem, even though reducing homelessness could improve the effectiveness of state registration laws.
"It's an ongoing dilemma, and I think that legislators grapple with it. Researchers grapple with it. I'm not sure that there's a quick or easy answer," said Jill Levenson, a leading researcher on the topic and associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. "Nobody wants to be the public face of leniency for sex offenders."
- Exactly, but, there is a way to fix it, like we mentioned at the top, remove the residency restrictions and the online registry, and let the ex-offenders get on with their lives like we do with all other criminals, to a point.
Alternatives not pursued
Earlier this year, the Indianapolis Star found discrepancies in Indiana's sex-offender registry. Some offenders were registered to vacant lots or non-existent addresses. Others registered as living on the outside were actually in jail.
In Cleveland, more than half of sex offenders registered to a men's homeless shelter were not actually sleeping there or had never been there to begin with.
When the majority of Boston's highest-risk sex offenders were found to be registered to homeless shelters in 2009, a legislative fight erupted to ban them from shelters.
Levenson believes state laws are mostly well-intentioned responses to concerns about protecting children and communities. "Unfortunately, those are some of those unintentional consequences of these laws," she said. "(Imposing housing restrictions) seems to make some intuitive, logical sense. ... There's sort of this false sense of security that occurs." But, she added, "where do we think they're going to go?"
Levenson has found no evidence that restricting where sex offenders live or requiring them to notify the surrounding community about their presence leads to reduced rates of recidivism. Nor has she found evidence that it increases public safety, prevents sex abuse or protects children.