About 650,000 sex offenders are registered throughout the United States. Such registration began in 1994 with the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, 42 U.S.C. ¤ 14071, which required states to create procedures to track the whereabouts of sex offenders. In 1996, Megan’s Law, 42 U.S.C. ¤ 13701, allowed states to publicize information about registered sex offenders, and now all states are required to maintain publicly accessible Internet registries. Community notification has increased awareness about the locations of sex criminals, resulting in the enactment of laws restricting where convicted sex offenders can live. Such policies are designed to diminish the risk posed to children by repeat sexual predators by decreasing access and opportunity. At least thirty states have passed laws preventing registered sex offenders from residing within a specified distance of schools, parks, day care centers, school bus stops, or other places commonly frequented by children.
This article explores the impact of such laws, highlighting the increase in homelessness among sex offenders, who have difficulty finding compliant housing. It also reviews research on the effectiveness of these laws in achieving their stated goals and briefly summarizes constitutional and human rights issues.
Research on Residential Restriction Laws
Little research has been conducted about the effectiveness of housing restrictions, but one new study from Florida confirmed that sex offenders who lived closer to schools or day care centers did not reoffend more often than those who lived farther away. In Iowa, sex crime rates did not decline in the years following the passage of a residential restriction law, nor did the number of child victims. Researchers from Minnesota also concluded that none of the 224 repeat sexual offenses studied would have been prevented by a residential restriction law. So far, no empirical evidence exists to support the notion that restricting where sex offenders live protects children from sexual abuse.
These results are perhaps unsurprising. Sex offenders do not molest children because they live near schools. They abuse when they are able to establish relationships with children and their families and misuse positions of familiarity, trust, and authority. According to the Justice Department, 93 percent of sexually abused children are molested by family members, friends, or acquaintances. Children are most likely to be assaulted by people they know, not strangers in schoolyards, so residence restrictions do little to prevent the most common situations in which children are likely to be harmed. Though contemporary sex crime policies have been inspired by tragic cases of child abduction and sexually motivated murder, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that such cases are rare events, about one hundred per year. Comparatively, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 899,000 children were victims of maltreatment in 2005, 9.3 percent of whom were sexually abused.
Problems with Buffer Zones
Buffer zones typically range from 500 to 2,500 feet between the offender’s housing and designated locations, encompassing the concentric area around protected settings. In addition to state laws, municipal ordinances restricting where sex offenders can live are found across the country. Local laws tend to create a domino effect whereby neighboring cities enact equal or more restrictive laws in an effort to prevent exiled sex offenders from migrating to their communities. This, in turn, leads to increased transience and homelessness for sex offenders. It also naturally creates clustering of offenders in areas with shorter buffer distances.
According to mapping research, the vast majority of residential dwellings in metropolitan areas are within close proximity to places where children congregate, leaving little territory available for sex offenders to find compliant housing. Housing options decrease as buffer zones increase. For example, in Orange County, Florida (Orlando), 99 percent of residential properties are within 2,500 feet of a school, day care center, park, or bus stop. Likewise, 93 percent of residential territory in Newark, New Jersey, is located within 2,500 feet of a school, and in Camden, New Jersey, 80 percent of residents live within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, or day care centers. In four major metropolitan areas of South Carolina, 45 percent of housing is within a 1,000 feet of schools or day care centers, and in Omaha, Nebraska, 79 percent of all residential parcels are within 2,000 feet. In Columbus, Ohio, 60 percent of residential dwellings are within a 1,000-foot buffer.
The problem of sex offender housing has received much attention in Miami, Florida, where over sixty sex offenders are now living under a bridge because they cannot locate compliant housing. Other states, such as Iowa and California, have also reported increased homelessness of sex offenders as a result of residential restrictions. Housing availability is limited by geographic restrictions and exacerbated by practical considerations such as affordability. Most sex offenders are underemployed as a result of their felony record and stigmatizing status, but lower income areas are more densely populated and therefore buildings are situated more closely together. Greater housing availability exists in more affluent areas, where larger properties allow for wider dispersion of child-oriented locations.
Constitutional and Human Rights of Offenders
There is no constitutional right to safe, decent, or affordable housing, or, for that matter, any housing at all. While banishment is unconstitutional, courts have ruled that residential restriction laws do not banish sex offenders because they do not prevent people from residing in a jurisdiction; rather, they simply prohibit them from living in a dwelling close to the protected venues. Few constitutional challenges have been successful, and those that have, such as in Ohio and Georgia, have been limited to protecting the rights of property owners but not renters. Hyle v. Porter, 117 Ohio St.3d 165 (Ohio S. Ct. 2008); Mann v. Ga. Dep’t of Corrections, 282 Ga. 754 (2007). The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on May 7, 2009, that the state’s Megan’s Law preempts municipalities from passing ordinances that deny accommodations to registered sex offenders. G.H. v. Township of Galloway, No. A-64/65 (N.J. May 7,К2009). Other municipal ordinances that restricted sex offender housing to areas outside a 2,500 foot zone, such as in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and Jacksonville, Florida, have been declared invalid due to preemption by state law. Charles Fross et al. v. County of Allegheny, Penn., Civ. No. 08-1405 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 20, 2009); Florida v. Schmidt et al. (Fourth Judicial Circuit, Duval County Fla. 2007). In California, the high court ruled that residential restrictions could not be applied retroactively to those who established a residence before the law went into effect. John Doe v. Schwarzenegger, Civ. No. 2:06-cv-02521-LKK-GGH (E.D. Cal. Nov. 17, 2006). Notably, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights does state that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state (Article 13(1)), that no one shall be deprived of property (Article 17), and that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including housing (Article 25).
Perhaps the greatest irony is that transience, homelessness, and instability interfere with effective tracking, monitoring, and probation supervision, undermining the very purpose of sex offender registries. If sex offenders cannot find compliant addresses to register, their whereabouts may become unknown. Many research studies show a clear link between housing instability and increased criminal recidivism. Therefore, laws that foster instability for offenders simply will not serve the best interest of public safety.
Imagining any other circumstance in which it would be deemed acceptable in our collective conscience to force anyone, even criminals, to become homeless is difficult. Some sex offenders will indeed reoffend. Many others will not. But if someone is apt to reoffend, creating a situation in which they have nothing to lose is unlikely to prove to be a sensible crime-fighting strategy. Lawmakers should rely on available evidence to guide criminal justice policies and avoid policies that deprive individuals of basic human needs.