The list of laws passed to punish and prevent sex offenses reads like a mournful roll call of dead and missing children: Megan's Law, the Jacob Wetterling Act, Jessica's Law. And although not named after Polly Klaas, California's three strikes law — the most severe legislation of its kind in the nation — was passed largely in response to the rape and murder of the 12-year-old kidnapped from her home.
Spurred by the visceral public reaction to violent crimes committed against children, lawmakers have introduced an array of strategies designed to control sex offenders and prevent them from committing new sex crimes, including longer prison sentences and parole terms, civil commitment of sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences but are judged to pose a continuing threat, and GPS monitoring of released sex offenders.
Increasingly common are residency restrictions on certain types of released sex offenders, barring them from living within a certain distance (typically 1,000 to 2,000 feet) of a school, playground or other area where children gather. According to a 2006 literature review, 22 states have enacted some type of residency restriction. Even tiny jurisdictions like Taylors Falls, Minn., (2003 population: 981) have adopted their own versions of such laws.
Given that a U.S. Department of Justice survey of 73,000 male sex offenders in state prisons found that 70 percent of their victims were under age 18, it would seem axiomatic that keeping sex offenders from living where they're likely to encounter children is sound policy.
But residency restrictions for sex offenders not only don't seem to be working as promised, there's some indication that by hindering smarter practices they help increase the danger of molestation. And despite their popularity with lawmakers and the public, they have not been universally embraced, even by those in the law enforcement community. A January 2007 resolution passed by the American Correctional Association declares, "There is no evidence to support the efficacy of broadly applied residential restrictions on sex offenders." A 2006 statement issued by the Iowa County Attorneys Association on that state's residency restriction requirements takes a similar view, asserting, "There is no demonstrated protective effect of the residency requirement that justifies the huge draining of scarce law enforcement resources in the effort to enforce the restriction."
Sex Offenses Outside the Safe Zone
A new study, "Does Residential Proximity Matter? A Geographic Analysis of Sex Offense Recidivism," which contains a detailed analysis of 224 sex offenders released from Minnesota prisons who were reincarcerated for another sex offense within four and a half years of their release, lends support to the positions taken by these organizations. The retrospective study applied four criteria to the crimes of re-offenders to determine whether residency restrictions (which had not been applied to any of the offenders upon their original release) might have prevented them from committing their new sex crimes.
The researchers noted that of the 224 cases studied, there were 79 "direct-contact cases," in which the offender actively established contact with the victim, whether on the street, in a public place or by breaking into the victim's residence. While residency restrictions are designed to prevent the nightmare scenario of an opportunistic sexual predator — most likely a stranger — victimizing children from a school or playground near his residence, the study found that these offenders' new offense did not generally fall into this pattern.
In some cases, for instance, the victim of the new offense was an adult. In about 40 percent of the direct-contact cases, offenders contacted their victims more than a mile away from their own homes — far outside even a 2,000-foot "safety zone." The researchers determined that of the 16 cases involving juveniles, "12 involved offenders who established direct contact within 1,000 feet, and two additional cases involved an offender who initiated contact within 2,500 feet. Not one of the 16 cases, however, was facilitated by close proximity to a school, day care or park. Instead, the offenders in these 16 cases victimized neighbors, or they made contact with victims near their own property."
There were three cases that did involve an offender who made contact with his victim at a location typically prohibited by residency restrictions (school or park) — but in two of the crimes, the offender lived more than 10 miles away from where he first established contact with the victim. The victim in the third crime was an adult. "Therefore," the study concludes, "none of the 224 incidents of sex offender recidivism fit the criteria of a known offender making contact with a child victim at a location within any of the distances typically covered by residential restriction laws."
A 2004 study of living arrangements and location of sex offenders conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Safety reported similar findings and recommendations. The researcher mapped the residences of released sex offenders who had committed at least one criminal offense during their first 15 months under law enforcement supervision, noting the proximity of the homes to schools and child care centers.
The data showed that "sex offenders who have committed a criminal offense (both sexual and nonsexual) while under criminal justice supervision appear to be randomly scattered throughout the study areas — there does not seem to be a greater number of these offenders living within proximity to schools and child care centers than other types of offenders."
The study concluded, "Placing restrictions on the location of correctionally supervised sex offender residences may not deter the sex offender from re-offending and should not be considered as a method to control sexual-offending recidivism."
Other research findings also underscore the shortcomings of residency restrictions.
In the study of released Minnesota sex offenders, when trying to estimate the distance between the offender's residence and the place he (the vast majority of sex offenders are male) first made contact with his victim, the researchers note, "for some cases, geographic distance was irrelevant in that several offenders first established contact over the telephone (one even while incarcerated for the prior sex offense) or the Internet (i.e., dating personals)."
In addition to questions about their effectiveness, residency restrictions can also have troubling consequences. The California Sex Offender Management Board, in a 2008 report on the state's management of adult sex offenders, notes that the number of sex offenders on parole reporting themselves as transient had quadrupled in the year since California's version of Jessica's Law — mandating, among other measures, a 2,000-foot "no predator zone" around schools and parks — had been passed overwhelmingly by voters.
Although generating any sympathy for sex offenders rendered homeless by residency restrictions is a difficult task, sympathy is also beside the point, as the Iowa prosecutors' group explained in its 2006 statement (which expressed concern about increased transience among sex offenders). "Efforts to rehabilitate offenders and to minimize the rate of re-offending are much more successful when offenders are employed, have family and community connections, and have a stable residence. These goals are severely impaired by the residency restriction, compromising the safety of children by obstructing the use of the best-known corrections practices."
Those practices can include cognitive behavioral treatment, which "critically examines deviant thoughts and behaviors" and helps the offender "monitor his own behavior through the development of internal controls." According to the California board's report, this type of treatment can decrease recidivism by up to 40 percent.
And while having several high-risk sex offenders living together under one roof sounds like a direct route to disaster, agencies in Colorado have pioneered a treatment and supervision method called a "shared living arrangement" (SLA), in which two or three sex offenders share and maintain a house that they either rent or own. Although such a shared residence would not usually be approved near a school or other area likely to attract children, more to the point, according to the 2004 Colorado report: "Offenders hold each other accountable for their actions and responsibilities and notify the appropriate authorities when a roommate commits certain behaviors, such as returning home late or having contact with children."
In analyzing re-offense rates among 130 sex offenders on probation, the Colorado report found, "When controlling for risk, sex offenders living in SLAs had the second-lowest number of criminal, technical and total violations (high-risk offenders in jail had the lowest number of violations)." A technical violation is one that contravenes the terms of either the offender's probation or his treatment and can include such behavior as possession of pornography or "having a sexual relationship with a vulnerable person (for example, dating a woman who has small children)."
Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.