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Residency Restrictions Don’t Make Kids Safer

October 17, 2009 Comments off

Newsday.com : Sex-offender residency restrictions don’t make kids safer.

Conventional wisdom is a powerful force that often leads the well-intentioned astray. For example, there’s the widespread belief that we can make children safer by restricting where known sex offenders are allowed to live. The notion is enticing in its simplicity. Make sure offenders don’t lay their heads near schools or parks or other places where children congregate, and kids will be safely ensconced in a predator-free bubble. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy.

Residency restrictions don’t make children safer. In fact, they may make communities more dangerous by pushing offenders underground. No one wants a sex offender living nearby. And the effort to protect kids is important and heartfelt. But the public, and elected officials, shouldn’t waste their time and energy on ever more exclusionary residency laws.

Having a kid snatched by a stranger skulking around a school yard is a nightmarish prospect. But that’s not how it usually happens. Nine out of 10 children who are sexually abused know and trust their abusers. They aren’t strangers. They’re a relative or babysitter, a coach or Mom’s boyfriend. It’s proximity through those and other relationships that puts children in harm’s way.

Even when the attacker is a stranger, victims are increasingly likely to have met them on the Internet. Besides, residency restrictions limit where offenders sleep, but not where they go. So they provide a false sense of security, while doing nothing to prevent most dangerous encounters.

What these restrictions do instead is cluster offenders in fewer and fewer places – too often in poor, politically powerless communities. And as it becomes harder for offenders to find legal housing, more will drop off the grid. They’ll report false addresses, or stop reporting any address at all. Some will become homeless and virtually impossible to monitor. And when the restrictions force offenders away from the support of relatives and counselors, or make it difficult for them to work, those laws increase the likelihood that they will reoffend.

Researchers who have studied the issue in places like Colorado and Florida and Minnesota all reached similar conclusions. In Minnesota, for instance, corrections officials analyzed the crimes committed by 224 sex offenders released from prison between 1990 and 2002 who were reincarcerated for a new sex crime by 2006. They looked at how they established contact with their more recent victims and where the crimes occurred. The conclusion? “Not one of the 224 sex offenses would likely have been deterred by a residency restrictions law.”

They’re not alone. The sentiment is shared by the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault – a group of 78 rape crisis centers whose reason for being is to support rape victims and end sexual violence. The group opposes the laws for one very simple reason, said executive director Jane McEwen: “Residency restrictions don’t keep people safer.”

Despite scant evidence that restrictions work, they’re on the books in Nassau and Suffolk counties; the towns of Brookhaven, Huntington and Southampton; the villages of Mineola, Floral Park, Valley Stream, East Rockaway, Lynbrook and Massapequa Park; and the City of Glen Cove, according to New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Residency restrictions are popular with the public and easy for elected officials to support. In fact, it would take real political courage for an official to resist. So the prospect that any of the existing laws will be repealed hovers somewhere between unthinkable and impossible. But enough is enough.

Officials shouldn’t up the ante, for instance as proposed in Brookhaven, where Supervisor Mark Lesko and some town board members have sponsored an infinitely more restrictive amendment to the town’s current residency restriction law. It would bar sex offenders from living within a quarter-mile of “community protection zones,” which include any school, park, playground, day care center, school bus stop, video arcade, amusement park, ice cream store, skate park, youth sports facility, church, gym, public swimming pool, ballfield, library, movie theater, youth center or shopping mall. It would put practically all of Brookhaven off limits.

But pushing sex offenders out of one town would mean pushing them into another. That risks igniting a residency-restriction arms race, with municipalities enacting more and more restrictive laws. Eventually widespread exclusion would invite a constitutional challenge. And that could threaten residency restrictions of all kinds, should a court decide that they advance no legitimate state interest.

So, what’s a worried public to do? There’s no silver bullet, but some things work better than others. Like educating kids about the dangers. Longer prison sentences. Registration of sex offenders, as in New York, where 29,491 are listed – including 927 in Suffolk and 492 in Nassau. Rigorous risk assessment, to target the most dangerous offenders. Mental health treatment. Intensive supervision on parole and probation – in some cases for life – with individually tailored restrictions, maybe including GPS tracking. And for the most dangerous, civil confinement in a mental institution after prison.

To protect children from sexual abuse we need to identify what works and stop spinning our wheels with what doesn’t.

New Playground Forces Out Sex Offenders

October 17, 2009 Comments off

miamiherald.com : Playground forces sex offenders to leave St. Francis in Fort Lauderdale – The opening of a nearby playground brings the ouster of convicted sexual offenders from a nearby treatment center.

About 20 sex offenders helped keep St. Francis open by paying the $190 weekly fee required of each, though the center still fell into deep debt. In turn, St. Francis helped keep the men from their demons with constant supervision and therapy and spiritual guidance.

“It changed my whole view of life that somebody cared,” says Dwight Rennie Dennis, 47, a registered sexual predator and St. Francis resident who has spent much of his adult life in and out of Florida prisons. ``This place made me understand that I can be somebody, that I can do better.”

That all changed in January, though, when a playground opened about two blocks away in Florence C. Hardy Park, triggering state and county residency restriction laws for sex offenders. In all of Miami-Dade and Broward, ordinances forbid convicted sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools and places where children gather.

The Department of Corrections, which supervises sex offenders on probation, ordered the men to leave St. Francis, says Chris Mancini, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who filed an injunction on behalf of eight residents who wanted to remain.

As the Oct. 21 deadline approaches, Navarro worries he and the other residents may end up like the colony of sex offenders living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami-Dade, where a multitude of residency restrictions for sex offenders have left them with few other places to live.

The irony of evicting the St. Francis residents, said Jill Levenson, a licensed clinical social worker and chair of the Department of Human Services at Lynn University in Boca Raton, is that the center was probably the best environment for them.

“The programming was probably ideal for this kind of person,” she says. “He’s got a structured, safe, supervised environment to live in, with therapeutic programming that focuses on preventing future crimes, resisting temptations, changing your thinking, living in a law-abiding fashion, and being part of a therapeutic community where those pro-social behaviors are supported.

“That is exactly the kind of environment we know helps prevent recitivism.”