Do Sex Offender Boundary Laws Work?

April 5, 2010

inforum.com (ND): Do sex offender boundary laws work?

There’s no doubt that a ban on sex offenders living within 1,200 feet of Fargo’s schools or parks would be popular. Dave Piep­korn, the city commissioner backing that idea, said the reaction he’s had from Fargo residents has been “overwhelmingly positive,” and in a nonscientific online Forum poll last week, 86 percent of the 2,188 votes were in favor.

The enthusiasm explains why sex offender residency laws have grown quickly in the decade or so since they were first enacted. A report by the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the Department of Justice, states that from 2000 to 2008, the number of states with restrictions for sex offender housing went from five to nearly 30.

Yet Fargo’s police chief and the head of an area nonprofit that works with victims of sexual violence are both dubious about the effectiveness of such laws. And they’re not alone.

Studies of sex offender residency laws in areas they’ve been tried haven’t found any positive effect on recidivism rates. Authorities who deal with sex offenders – police, prosecutors and probation and parole agents – often end up opposing the buffer-zone restrictions.

“It’s almost totally driven by emotion,” said Richard Tewksbury, a University of Louisville professor of justice administration who studies sex offender laws. “Without exception, all the research shows there is no impact.”

Pushed to margins

Gary xxx is a Level III sex offender, a 65-year-old who must register for life because of two indecent exposure convictions in North Dakota, the latest in Cass County in 2007. Level III is the designation for sex offenders who are deemed the highest risk to re-offend.

He had difficulty finding a place to live at first, being turned down by a handful of landlords before ending up at xxxx. in Fargo – one of four Level III offenders in the apartment building.

Much of the city would be off-limits. That’s one of the troubles with broad bans on where sex offenders can live, said Tewksbury. If they can find a place at all, it’s in “the poorest, most disorganized, least desirable areas of the city,” he said, where it is more common for children to be unsupervised.

It also tends to make it harder for sex offenders to access treatment, find jobs and have a support system – all keys to crime-free life.

“We simply make life more difficult in the important ways,” Tewksbury said. Davis agreed, saying that isolation makes his recovery much harder. “The only way to be back in society is to be around people,” he said. Police Chief Keith Ternes said “We’ve put a scarlet letter on those people”.

Hardship without upside

Ternes is worried the 1,200-foot ordinance could lead more offenders to stop registering, as they must do under state law, which would in turn take up more of the police’s time.

That’s what happened in Iowa, one of the first places where offenders were barred from living by schools or parks. The state repealed the law upon the urging of law enforcement officials. It’s a case Ternes has pointed out publicly.

Tewksbury said he has conducted a study of re-offending rates in Iowa during the time the law was in place, though it hasn’t yet been published. Recidivism was unchanged, though the law put a greater burden on both the offenders and the authorities responsible for keeping tabs on them.

“It poses many hardships, with no real possibility of benefits,” he said.

The police chief is also skeptical that a geographical separation between places kids go and offenders’ homes does much to keep children safe.

A sex offender who’s looking to strike again can simply travel to those same areas, Ternes said. Also, a study in Minnesota showed that’s a rare occurrence.

That study of 224 repeat sex offenders from 1990 to 2005 found that 16 (7%) of them made contact with a juvenile victim within a mile of their home, but none of the contacts happened near a school, park or playground.

Piepkorn said he thinks some researchers “have an agenda” to support rights for sex offenders and said he’s been getting most of his negative feedback from out-of-state groups.

Greg Diehl, the executive director of the local Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, said though he can see the rationale of Piepkorn’s proposal, he doesn’t think much of the 1,200-foot law, either. He’d rather see new approaches implemented.

“I’m not sure that this would solve a whole lot of anything,” Diehl said. “The biggest issue is there are no easy answers.”

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