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MA : Kick Sex Offenders from Homeless Shelters

November 18, 2009

boston.com : Sex offender ban sought for homeless shelters.

As the state’s steep budget cuts have forced organizations that help the homeless to cut beds, staff, and programs, the advocates for the needy say banning sex offenders would allow shelters to save money on security, open up space for others, and make shelters safer.

The Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, which represents 90 organizations that provide services to the homeless, has urged state lawmakers to add shelters to an increasingly long list of residential bans for many sex offenders. They are already barred in some communities from living near schools, day-care centers, parks, playgrounds, libraries, or nursing homes.

While those who study sex offender recidivism rates say such residential restrictions are counterproductive, state lawmakers who support the proposed legislation argue that it also would fix a loophole in the law, which for five years has required the most dangerous sex offenders to post their names, addresses, and photos on a public website. They say too many sex offenders bypass the law by listing a homeless shelter as their address when they live elsewhere.

In a review yesterday of 162 Level 3 sex offenders – those with a high risk of committing sex crimes again – who list addresses in Boston on the state’s online registry, the Globe found that at least 74 percent reported they were living at homeless shelters.

Those who treat sex offenders and monitor recidivism rates say such residential restrictions make it more likely they will commit future crimes.

Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute and author of a report, “The Pursuit of Safety: Sex Offender Policy in the United States,’’ said Massachusetts would be one of the few states to pass such a restriction. Florida also bans sex offenders from homeless and hurricane shelters.

She said if the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would join other states in making it more likely that a sex offender ends up on the street. In 2000, she said only five states had residential restrictions limiting the proximity of an offender to a school, park, or nursing home; now 30 states have such restrictions, forcing many into homelessness.

“If the purpose of this ban is to continue to punish and effectively banish people after they’ve done their time and paid their debt to society, then it’s a pretty effective policy,’’ she said. “If it’s to increase public safety, then banning registered sex offenders from shelters is counterproductive. It will make it harder for law enforcement to keep track of their whereabouts, and harder for them to meet their basic human needs, which in turn makes it harder for them to live successfully in the community.’’ She and others said research shows there’s no link between where sex offenders live and whether they commit new crimes.

Jill Levenson, a professor of human services who researches sex crime policy at Lynn University in Florida, said a study she completed last year of 330 sex offenders who live near schools and day-care centers in Florida found that they were no more likely to re-offend than other former convicts.

“The risk that sex offenders might pose in shelters for women and children may make sense, but to ban them from any shelter would have to be balanced with the need to provide social services to sex offenders,’’ she said. “If someone is homeless, despondent, and desperate, they’re more likely to resume a life of crime.’’

Others questioned the constitutionality of banning sex offenders from shelters, which are often obligated by state contracts to accept just about anyone they have room for who presents themselves as homeless.

Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which has opposed similar residential restrictions from Barnstable to Lynn, argue that they impose additional punishment after convicts have served their time.

“Just as a matter of public policy, these restrictions make no sense,’’ said John Reinstein, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Do we want to cut them loose entirely, so we don’t know where they are? What does someone do with no place to live, and they can’t go to a homeless shelter? And what are the implications for public safety and the sex offender law, which requires them to register where they live?’’

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