Sex Offender Restrictions Turn Residents of New York Into Residents of Limbo


Among the policies that have been widely adopted in this country to deal with sex offenders, two of the worst are residence restrictions, which are not only ineffective but counterproductive, and civil commitment, which allows the government to continue detaining offenders after they serve their sentences by relabeling them patients. New York has managed to combine these two themes by imposing residence restrictions so onerous that sex offenders due to be released from prison cannot find legal places to live. The solution: keep them locked up.

Under New York's Sexual Assault Reform Act, which took effect in 2005, level-three sex offenders and all sex offenders whose victims were younger than 18 are prohibited from going within 1,000 feet of a school or any other facility that mainly serves children. The New York Times reports that "lawyers who represent sex offenders have prepared a map showing that nearly all of Manhattan is off limits." That means sex offenders not only are not allowed to live in Manhattan; they are not even allowed to visit or pass through it, unless they can somehow do so without running afoul of the 1,000-foot rule. Yet somehow they were allowed to stay in Manhattan homeless shelters until last February, when the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision suddenly realized that was illegal. Under the new policy, sex offenders are allowed to live only in the few homeless shelters that comply with the 1,000-foot rule, although I'm not sure how they manage to get to those locations without coming impermissibly close to one school or another.

Due to the shortage of legal residences, the Times reports, "dozens of sex offenders who have satisfied their sentences in New York State are being held in prison beyond their release dates." Most of those offenders (about 70 out of 101) are New York City residents—or were. Now they are residents of legal limbo, and "some have begun filing habeas corpus petitions in court, demanding to be released and claiming the state has no legal authority to hold them."

In a lawsuit filed last April, a sex offender who was ordered to leave his Brooklyn home because it was too close to a school argues that New York's limits violate his rights to intrastate travel and to free association (including association with his own family). He also argues that the restrictions amount to ex post facto punishment—a plausible claim given the complete absence of evidence that such rules serve a legitimate regulatory function.

As the Times notes, residence restrictions in some jurisdictions have forced sex offenders to live in bizarre and isolated places such as an encampment under a bridge in Miami and  a trailer in the parking lot of a prison on Long Island. That sure looks a lot like punishment, and there is no reason to think it protects public safety. If anything, this sort of banishment makes recidivism more likely by sending the message that there is no hope of living a normal life.