By Ben Wolford
WEST PALM BEACH - Harsh local restrictions on where sex offenders can live should be lifted, the Palm Beach County public defender said.
And prosecutors and law enforcement agreed.
Their consensus is a turn in the way safety officials think about regulating the movements of the most restricted class of ex-convicts. Dozens of sex offenders are homeless in Palm Beach County, sleeping outside on benches or under foliage, because living nowhere is easier than living somewhere.
Meanwhile, more than 100 sex offenders populate a remote cluster of duplexes, surrounded by sugar cane, two miles outside Pahokee. Known as Miracle Village, it is perhaps the most welcoming community for sex offenders in South Florida.
- Let's not forget the Julia Tuttle Causeway (YouTube) where at one time, over 100 ex-offenders were FORCED and TOLD to live.
"Any laws about public safety should be grounded in evidence-based policies, not by hysteria and misinformation," said Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, which lobbies for restrictions that are based on the risk posed by each offender.
Colletta is also a member of a task force expected to recommend new residency restrictions to the county government. The Sex Offender Re-Entry Task Force, which includes lawyers, deputies, parole officers and elected officials, met Friday and heard from residents of Miracle Village.
"We took one of the worst parts of Pahokee and turned it into one of the safest parts of Pahokee," said Pat Powers, director of Matthew 25 Ministries, the Christian group that oversees Miracle Village.
Of the 909 registered sex offenders in Palm Beach County, 62 of them are homeless.
They report to their probation officers daily, and deputies with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office say they are easier to watch.
"They have to tell us where they're going to be at," said Rosalyn Baker, of the Department of Corrections. "The corner of this, the corner of that."
The state law on sex offender residency says they cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school, day care center, park or playground. Palm Beach County further restricts them, pushing the zone to 2,500 feet. Some cities and villages flesh out the remaining patchwork of ordinances.
But residency means dwelling; it's where the offender sleeps between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Some of them, Baker said, could live near a school all day then leave at night.
Ultimately, the task force seems to agree, none of this is relevant. The residency restrictions offer merely a "semblance of protection," they argue.
"These residency restrictions have not been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism," Public Defender Carey Haughwout said.
The rate of recidivism among sex offenders nationally, studies show, is between 5 percent and 10 percent over a decade. One study in Minnesota determined that residency restrictions would not have prevented any of the 224 sex offenses researchers examined.
Although county law enforcement officials agree residency restrictions should be repealed, they insisted on the dangerousness of sex offenders. Five percent recidivism is still 5 percent, they said.
"We're talking about kids who have been raped and killed," Sheriff's Office Detective Kevin Umphrey said.