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Sex-offender Residency Restrictions : Knee-Jerk Reaction

January 18, 2010

dailycamera.com: Sex-offender restrictions generate debate in Boulder County.

Research, lawsuits reduce popularity of Sex-offender restrictions

About 30 states restrict where sex offenders can live. Colorado doesn’t have a statewide law, leaving it up to individual communities.
Creating sex-offender-free zones became popular in 2005 after the highly publicized murder of a 9-year-old girl, Jessica Lunsford, in Florida by a sex offender who moved to her neighborhood. Since then, legal challenges and research calling into question the effectiveness of those measures have led some places to reconsider. Research generally shows that forbidding offenders from living near schools doesn’t reduce recidivism rates.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said the law requiring sex offenders to register helps officers keep track of them. Impose residency restrictions, he said, and sex offenders are likely to go underground, move to remote areas or fail to register at all.

Restrictions dubbed “knee-jerk”

Another detractor is Michael Dell, who was convicted of sexual assault in Boulder in 1999 and is a board member of Colorado CURE, a national organization that advocates for prisoners and former inmates. He said residency restrictions are based on the false assumption that registered sex offenders are highly likely to reoffend and to target strangers. “The majority of offenses take place in the home from families or close associates (over 90% according to USDOJ studies) ,” he said. “Only a small number of cases involve strangers, but that’s what the fear is based on. Residency restrictions are a knee-jerk reaction and give a false sense of security.”

Broader questions include whether residency restrictions would hinder the reintegration of offenders into society, along with whether the restrictions would prevent sex crimes.

As far as Louisville police could determine, no registered sex offenders have reoffended while living in the city, he said. Louisville’s sex-offender registry also has never included a “sexually violent predator.” Lafayette’s police department looked into residency restrictions in late 2009 but decided not to move forward because, Police Chief Paul Schultz said, “I can’t find an expert who thinks it’s a good idea.”

He mapped out a 1,200-foot-buffer around schools, parks and swimming pools in the 9.3-square-mile city, which has about 45 registered sex offenders in all. The result, he said, was such a limited area where sex offenders could live that it would essentially banish them from the city.

Restrictions counterproductive?

Chief Schultz cited a 2009 research paper produced for Colorado’s Sex Offender Management Board in his decision to stay away from residency restrictions. The research suggests that residency restrictions don’t protect the community from sex offenders and can instead hurt public-safety efforts.

Cathy Rodriguez, who spent six months researching the paper for the Sex Offender Management Board, said residency restrictions tend to be popular. “It’s a feel-good thing,” she said. “The community wants to feel safe.” The problem is, she said, “When you sit down and look at it objectively, it doesn’t make sense. I’ve yet to read research that supports it.”

She said it’s already a challenge for many sex offenders to find places to live, especially those who’ve recently been released from jail. Living with family members is common, but that may not be an option when residency restrictions are in place. That can force offenders to move to remote areas, away from support systems, in turn increasing the likelihood that they’ll reoffend. Others may fail to register altogether. “Residency restrictions can create a huge barrier,” she said.

Rodriguez, the sex-offender management board researcher, said the verdict is still out on whether those are effective in reducing sex-offender recidivism rates.

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