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Like registration, residence restrictions are ostensibly aimed at protecting potential victims from known sex offenders, in this case by creating a geographical buffer. But the logic of these rules, which have been adopted by more than 20 states and hundreds of municipalities, is hard to understand. “I don’t know of any research that suggests the residency restrictions are effective,” says Christopher. “People don’t necessarily offend where they live.”
In 2005 Iowa banned people convicted of sex offenses involving minors from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center. Almost immediately, the ban prompted complaints from police and prosecutors, who worried that the residence restrictions were so burdensome that they discouraged sex offenders from pleading guilty and from registering after conviction, making them impossible to track. In a 2006 statement, the Iowa County Attorneys Association said the law “does not provide the protection that was originally intended” and called for its repeal, citing “the cost of enforcing the requirement and the unintended effects on families of offenders.” After the law took effect, the number of sex offenders whose whereabouts were unknown more than doubled. The prosecutors reported that “the residency restriction is causing offenders to become homeless, to change residences without notifying authorities of their new locations, to register false addresses or to simply disappear.”
Jerry Behn, the Republican state senator who introduced the law, conceded that he might have gotten carried away. “If you draw a map, pretty soon you can make it so no area in town is available to live in,” Behn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. “It would have been better if we had put it at 1,000 feet.” In 2009 the legislature replaced the 2,000-foot rule with a law prohibiting anyone convicted of “a sex offense against a minor” from working at a school or day care center, visiting an elementary school or day care center without permission, or loitering within 300 feet of a facility intended primarily for use by children.
Iowa’s unhappy experience with residence restrictions did not deter Georgia legislators from enacting an even more onerous set of rules in 2006. Their law, which extended existing residence restrictions, banned all registered sex offenders (not just those who had committed crimes against children) from living, working, or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, churches, child care facilities, or other places where minors congregate, including parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, skating rinks, and school bus stops. Even a sex offender who did not currently live within one of these exclusion zones could be forced to move in the future, depending on how his neighbors decided to use their property. For the law’s sponsors, its indiscriminate breadth was a feature, not a bug. Georgia House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons) said he hoped sex offenders “will want to move to another state.”
Under the 2006 law, all 490 registered sex offenders in DeKalb County, most of them men who as teenagers had consensual sex with younger girls, were required to move because their residences were within 1,000 feet of a covered location. The law applied even to sex offenders dying in nursing homes. One Georgia woman, labeled a sex offender because she performed fellatio on a 15-year-old boy when she was 17, had to move in 2005 because she was too close to a day care center. When the legislature added school bus stops to the list of prohibited locations in 2006, her new home became illegal as well.
In 2007 the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the residence restrictions, citing the perpetual insecurity they created. The court was responding to a lawsuit by Anthony Mann, who in 2002 was sentenced to four months in jail and five years of probation for flashing two minors during a business trip to North Carolina. In 2003 Mann married and bought a house in Hampton, Georgia. At the time, it was a legal location. But then a day care center opened nearby, rendering his residence illegal. “Under the terms of that statute,” the state Supreme Court noted, “there is no place in Georgia where a registered sex offender can live without being continually at risk of being ejected.” Concluding that the law “precludes appellant from having any reasonable investment-backed expectation in any property purchased as his private residence,” the court unanimously ruled that it violated the Fifth Amendment’s ban on uncompensated takings of private property.
The Georgia law also prevented Mann from working at a barbecue restaurant in Lovejoy that he co-owned, since it was within 1,000 feet of a day care center that opened after the restaurant was established. But because Mann did not present enough evidence of economic harm, the Georgia Supreme Court did not overturn the law’s work restrictions.
‘A 90 Percent Likelihood of Recidivism’
Constitutional issues aside, closing off employment opportunities for sex offenders, who are already handicapped by criminal records and public registration, does not seem like an effective way of encouraging them to put their lives in order. Neither does forcing ex-convicts to cluster in the boondocks, far from jobs, family, churches, and treatment programs.
“Once someone is zoned out that far, a lot of the resources that help reduce the risk to reoffend are taken away,” says Maia Christopher. “People who are coming out of prison, who have whatever deficits and risk factors they have, are put into situations that really high-functioning people would find very challenging. I don’t think anybody finds it particularly easy to be living under a bridge. When you have someone who’s already got a lot of issues, part of what we’re doing is increasing that challenge. Once you make the restrictions so broad, you tend to take away a lot of the resources that we know help keep people safe, such as community stability, employment, family services, spiritual support—the relationships that help people stay crime-free.”
Human Rights Watch’s Jamie Fellner likewise argues that the rules aimed at discouraging sex offenders from committing new crimes can produce the opposite effect. “One of the most powerful things that keep people from breaking the law is a sense of what they will lose if they do,” she says. “If you’re treating someone like a cur, a dog that is being kicked out of the village, how are you strengthening that person’s desire or ability to follow the law?”
Politicians who push ever-harsher laws routinely argue that sex offenders are almost certain to commit new offenses anyway. “The rate of recidivism for these crimes is astronomical because these people are compulsive,” said Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) in 1994, making the case for the federal Megan’s Law. In 2005 Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), later notorious for sending sexually suggestive email messages to teenage pages, claimed: “There is a 90 percent likelihood of recidivism for sexual crimes against children. Ninety percent. That is the standard. That is their record. That is the likelihood. Ninety percent.” His source may have been California Assemblyman Bill Hoge (R-Pasadena), who in 1996 told The New York Times that child molesters, upon being released from prison, “will immediately commit this crime again at least 90 percent of the time.”
There is no basis for these numbers. “Though often thought of as the most persistent and dangerous criminals, sex offenders are among the least likely criminals to recidivate,” write Florida Institute of Technology psychologist Timothy Fortney and three co-authors in a 2007 article published by the journal Sexual Offender Treatment. A 2003 Justice Department study of 9,700 sex offenders found that 5 percent were arrested for new sex crimes within three years of being released from prison. (By comparison, 23 percent of burglars were arrested for new burglaries, and 22 percent of people who had served time for nonsexual assault were arrested for new assaults.) Studies that cover longer periods find higher recidivism rates for sex offenders, but still nothing like those claimed by panic-promoting politicians. Two meta-analyses of studies involving a total of 29,000 sex offenders, published by the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 1998 and 2005, found a recidivism rate of 14 percent after four to six years. A study of 4,700 sex offenders, published by Public Safety Canada in 2004, found that 24 percent were charged with a new sex crime over a period of 15 years.
Since the National Crime Victimization Survey indicates that most sex crimes go unreported, these numbers do not tell the whole story. But Karl Hanson, a senior research officer at Public Safety Canada who co-authored many of the recidivism studies, believes the unreported sex crimes largely fall into two broad categories: those deemed too minor to bother calling the police (such as a drunken groping at a party) and those involving relatives or trusted members of the victim’s social network—neither of which fit the pattern that legislators have in mind when they argue that registration, public notification, and residence restrictions can help protect children and women from attacks by strangers.