Residency Restrictions Are Double-edged Sword

April 10, 2009 : Monitoring sex offenders: local housing ordinances can misfire.

Looking at the idea of an ordinance on an emotional level, it is easy to see why so many have been approved statewide — and around the country for that matter. But as Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Douglas Grimes said in a recent Patriot-News article, further residency restrictions are a double-edged sword. In some parts of the country — Florida and California in particular — residency restrictions have caused more issues than they have solved.

Some restrictions are so severe that sex offenders who register once they leave prison have been packed into a single neighborhood because it is the only place they can live. In other cases, sex offenders cannot find any place to reside and have become homeless. What this means is that state officials no longer have a permanent address for them and no real way to monitor their whereabouts.

It is perhaps also important to remember that Megan’s Law, which is only a monitoring system, was never meant to mete out additional punishment on convicts who have served their prison sentences. Yet, in many cases where communities have created additional ordinances, that is what has happened.

In Allegheny County, for example, a federal judge overturned a local ordinance that prohibited convicted offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, child-care facilities and playgrounds. As are many of the local laws that are created, the Allegheny County ordinance doesn’t distinguish between dangerous offenders and those unlikely to repeat their offenses.

The judge said last month that the ordinance conflicts with the state’s obligation to rehabilitate offenders and return them to society. He added that isolating them keeps them from jobs, family support and the psychological counseling they need.

Added to this is a recent study by the American Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology showing that residency restrictions had no effect on whether an offender was arrested again.

While well-intentioned, these ordinances might provide a false sense of security for residents and they can cause increased hurdles for rehabilitating and monitoring sex offenders.

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