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How Common Sense Places Children At Risk

April 22, 2009

SEX OFFENDER RESIDENCY RESTRICTIONS: HOW COMMON SENSE PLACES CHILDREN AT RISK.
Drexel Law Review, Earle Mack School of Law, by Lindsay A. Wagner

INTRODUCTION
Sex offender residency restrictions (SORRs) are a manifestation of the American public’s retributivist attitudes and biased fears —attitudes and fears that ultimately result in ineffective policy choices. Over the last quarter century in the United States there has been a reemergence of “just deserts” as a generalized theory of policy. This retributivist policy is particularly salient in recent civil sanctions levied against sex offenders after their release from prison. Sex offenders, as a group, incite the public’s fear and hatred, and politicians seeking to curry electorate favor often support increasingly harsh sanctions against these “political pariahs of our day.” Most recently, in an attempt to keep communities safe, at least twenty-two states E.2d 69 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008). and hundreds of local municipalities have placed severe restrictions on where sex offenders may live after being released from prison. These restrictions typically exclude sex offenders from living within 1000 to 2500 feet of schools, parks, day care centers, and other areas where children congregate. However, research indicates that these fear-driven laws are ill-advised policy choices based on faulty reasoning. They aggravate recidivism risk factors, and hence may actually make communities less safe.

By framing these public safety laws in the context of modern criminal policy, this paper highlights the possible mechanisms responsible for the restrictions’ development and proliferation despite the growing body of research evidencing their counter-productivity. Understanding the context in which these laws have developed will help shed light on the most useful avenues of sex offender legislation reform. Instead of focusing on the constitutional rights of sex offenders, as most legal scholars have done, strategies for sex offender legislation reform need to focus on uniting the political and legal aspects of the reform effort. More effective reform can be sought through a better informed public, rather than a protective judiciary.

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