Recently, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that a policy banning registered sex offenders from entering Albuquerque's public libraries is unconstitutional. Over the past decade the availability of online sex offender registries has enabled widespread awareness of sexual offenders living in the community, increasing concerns for the safety of children and leading politicians to pass laws restricting where sex offenders can live, work and even be present. Residence restrictions in 30 states and countless municipalities typically prohibit individuals convicted of sex crimes from residing within 500 to 2500 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, daycare centers, bus stops and other places where children congregate.
Few court challenges have been successful in overturning such restrictions. Research shows that politicians and citizens are overwhelmingly in favor of such laws, which are often based on stated (but empirically unsupported) assumptions that almost all sex offenders reoffend and that they are immune to therapeutic intervention. In fact, recidivism rates of known sex offenders are much lower than commonly believed, and properly designed treatment, though not equally effective for all offenders, can significantly reduce the risk of re-offending. Restrictions also reinforce the myth of "stranger danger," despite research from the Justice Department indicating that over 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims are well known to their perpetrators, who typically cultivate opportunities for molestation through familiar relationships with relatives and acquaintances.
Residence restriction laws are relatively new, but some research has questioned whether these laws "work" to prevent recidivism. For instance, sexual recidivists do not appear to live closer to schools or parks than non-recidivists, suggesting that residential proximity to such venues is not a contributing factor to re-offending. Furthermore, sex offenders rarely prey on young children in or near parks, libraries or schools and sexually motivated abductions of children are very rare events. Laws restricting where sex offenders live or work will do little to prevent the most common circumstances in which children are sexually abused, through positions of authority and familiarity.
In fact, residential restrictions may create more problems than they solve. Since the vast majority (80-95 percent) of residential properties in densely populated metropolitan areas are within 2500 feet of a school, park, or daycare center, housing options can be diminished to a degree where sex offenders become homeless or transient. This transience undermines the very purpose of sex offender registries (to track and monitor where sex offenders live) and creates other barriers to successful reintegration. Another unintended consequence of such laws is clustering, where sex offenders end up living in disproportionate numbers in the limited areas that are compliant with restrictions.
Some jurisdictions have instead opted for "child safety zones" or "loitering zones." Rather than restricting where sex offenders reside, such initiatives prohibit them from hanging around in places (without a legitimate reason or prior permission) where they can easily cultivate relationships with children and engage in grooming tactics. In some cases loitering laws are supplemented with GPS monitoring devices that alert officials when a sex offender enters a forbidden area without a legitimate reason. These types of laws, though also controversial and vulnerable to legal challenges, might be better equipped to manage the daily activities of sex offenders at risk for abusing children than housing laws which dictate primarily where sex offenders sleep.
Diminishing access to potential victims is an appropriate component of sex crime prevention, but should be tailored to the offender's risk, offense patterns and victim preferences. Broadly restrictive legislation is unlikely to be effective in preventing sexual assault and interferes with reintegration (housing stability, employment and social support) which may inadvertently increase risk. Treatment should be included as part of any comprehensive strategy for preventing recidivistic sexual violence. Professionals and policymakers alike are encouraged to consider a range of options available for building safer communities and to endorse those that are most likely to achieve their stated goals while minimizing collateral consequences for offenders reentering communities.
Jill Levenson is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida and an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh. She has published over 80 articles investigating the impact and effectiveness of social policies and therapeutic interventions designed to prevent recidivistic sexual violence.
Suggested citation: Jill Levenson, Sex Offender Residency Restrictions Impede Safety Goals, JURIST - Hotline, Feb. 1, 2012, http://jurist.org/hotline/2012/02/jill-levenson-sexoffenders-residency.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Leah Kathryn Sell, an assistant editor for JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com