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Residency Restrictions Don’t Make Kids Safer

October 17, 2009

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.

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