The Folly of Residence Restrictions for Sex Offenders


The New York Times reports that 40 or so sex offenders in Long Island's Suffolk County live in two government-supplied trailers, one of them located in the parking lot of a prison, largely because residence restrictions make it almost impossible for them to find a legal home after they are released:

In New York State, laws prohibit sex offenders on parole or whose victims were younger than 18 from residing within 1,000 feet of schools or other child care facilities. In 2006, Suffolk [County] passed a law extending the distance for all sex offenders to a quarter mile. Southampton [a Suffolk County beach town] later stretched that to up to a mile. 

As I explained in a 2011 Reason article about sex offenders, there are several problems with such rules:

There is no evidence that residence restrictions prevent crime and little reason to think they would. Sex offenders are free to move around over the course of a day, and residence restrictions do not even notionally prevent them from finding victims more than 1,000 feet, a quarter mile, or a mile from their homes. Furthermore, data from the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey indicate that more than 90 percent of sexually abused minors are assaulted by relatives or acquaintances, not by strangers who happen to live near a playground or school.

Residence restrictions are indiscriminate. The rules are supposed to be aimed at people who pose a special threat to children. Yet New York's law applies to all sex offenders on parole, whether or not their crimes involved minors. Even a sex offense involving a minor, which triggers lifelong residence restrictions under New York's law, does not necessarily mark someone as a menace to children. An 18-year-old who had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend, for instance, is not exactly a child molester. The same might be true, depending on the details, of  the Southampton trailer dweller who was convicted of "disseminating pornography among minors."

Residence restrictions promote recidivism. By effectively banishing sex offenders from most (sometimes nearly all) of a city or county and forcing them to live together in trailers, in cheap motels, in campgrounds, or under bridges, often far from therapy and employment opportunities, the restrictions impede reintegration and rehabilitation, making new crimes more likely. They also undermine the registration systems championed by the same people who support residence restrictions, since it is hard to keep tabs on homeless sex offenders.

Even some advocates of residence restrictions concede they have gone too far:

"When you propose a law restricting sex offenders to 1,000 feet from any bus stop, that's just not going to work," said Laura A. Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law and the Crime Victims Center, who lives on Long Island. "You have to be reasonable."

Since their costs are clear and their benefits are unproven at best, it is hard to see how any residence restrictions count as reasonable. All they seem to offer is emotional satisfaction and a false sense of security.