Just mentioning the housing needs of convicted sex offenders is sure to raise the ire of many, with the prevailing attitude being “not in my neighborhood.”
It’s an understandable reaction, because those who commit sex crimes often prey on the most helpless and vulnerable victims, our children. To say it’s an especially harmful crime falls short of describing the emotional havoc left in its wake.
That’s why many states and locales have enacted laws requiring convicted offenders to register where they live and work; where and how they use the Internet, and prohibiting them from visiting places where other children may frequent.
In Indiana, offenders are prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks or youth program centers. As a result, offenders are forced to live in the most “unhealthy” of neighborhoods to satisfy that requirement, if they can find housing at all.
As a society, we owe it to our children to keep them safe. We also have an obligation to provide a safety net for those who have served their time, which means clean and affordable housing for sex offenders.
The case where up to eight homeless offenders were about to be evicted from a church-run shelter in Muncie for violating the distance requirement illustrates perfectly how laws with good intentions can clash with people trying to do the right thing. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the offenders were not forced to leave their shelter. But a long-term solution is lacking.
When drawing the 1,000-feet restrictions on a map, it’s difficult to find areas that satisfy that requirement. The result is a concentration of offenders.
In downtown Muncie, a half-mile radius from the newspaper offices shows 12 addresses where offenders live, according to data from the Delaware County Sheriff’s office. Four addresses list multiple offenders living there, including at least one shelter.
In Fort Wayne, a trailer park housed 14 sex offenders — nearly half the park’s addresses — where a 9-year-old girl disappeared and was later found dead just before Christmas in 2011. They were living there in order or to satisfy residency restrictions. It should be noted the girl and her family knew the man who killed her.
Some more statistics: There were about 190 registered sex offenders living in Muncie last Friday, or about one offender for every 357 Muncie residents.
But statistics are harder to come by when determining whether sex offenders are likely to repeat their crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice, a U.S. study of more than 9,000 male sex offenders released in 15 states in 1994 found that sex criminals were less likely to be reconvicted over the following three years than all released prisoners — 24 percent compared with 47 percent. Child molesters had a lower rate of 20.4 percent. Other studies point to varying rates of recidivism, with a main factor dependent on how long offenders are tracked after their convictions.
Existing evidence seems to counter the popular notion that sex offenders are far more likely to be repeat offenders than other criminal populations.
It’s unacceptable to ignore the problem, just as it is unacceptable to pass it along to other communities, or to force offenders to live in narrowly defined areas, especially when other studies show that 90 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by someone known by the child such as a family member, friend or other adult.
We are not seeking repeal of existing laws, but for the application of common sense. If offenders are living in a shelter or halfway house under close supervision, that should be sufficient in light that they must register with police agencies any change of address or job status.
If we as a society believe in fair play and that offenders must pay for their crime, it makes no sense to stack the deck against those who have paid that debt to society, making it nearly impossible for them to become productive citizens. We’re better than that.