It's Time to Rethink Our Approach to Sex Offenders

Thousands of sex offenders are released from prisons every year. Where should they go?
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(Photo: Zuerichs Strassen/Flickr)

(Photo: Zuerichs Strassen/Flickr)

Each year, 10,000 to 20,000 sex offenders are released from prisons into communities that aren’t quite ready to accept them back. Restrictions on where offenders can live and loiter are a popular legal strategy to keep children out of reach of sexual predators, but in reality they keep offenders an arm’s length away from affordable housing and employment—as writer Alastair Gee reports in our current issue—and have been known to force them into living in what essentially become off-the-grid, shanty-towns of sex offenders.

Last week, California’s Supreme Court decided that the state-wide laws preventing offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks violated the rights of those living in San Diego County. The case could set a precedent for other counties across the state, especially those with large populations and limited affordable housing, according to Janice Bellucci, an attorney and president of the non-profit California Reform Sex Offender Laws.

Bellucci has been battling what she sees as unnecessary and unconstitutional restrictions on where offenders can both live and spend time in cities and counties across California. The state’s constitution prohibits local governments from creating new rules on issues already regulated by the state, such as limiting where sex offenders can live. But that hasn’t stopped many cities from trying.

"The laws were so different from one [city] to the next that a sex offender who wanted to remain compliant found it very difficult, if not impossible, to do so."

“When it comes to these kinds of laws, the local governments have already proven that what they do when left to their own devices is to create chaos,” Bellucci says. At least 79 cities and roughly a dozen counties passed laws that restricted where offenders could spend their time, barring them from piers, parks, and even movie theaters. “The laws were so different from one [city] to the next that a sex offender who wanted to remain compliant found it very difficult, if not impossible, to do so,” Bellucci says. In one city you could take a walk on the pier or visit the dog park, in another they were off limits to offenders, and there were no signs notifying sex offenders in any of these cities that they might be entering forbidden territory. Bellucci filed lawsuits against all of the cities with these new restrictions, and all but five have since repealed the ordinances or significantly revised them to be consistent with state laws.

A new bill, backed by Republican Assemblyman Bill Brough, has been up for consideration since January, and if passed would allow cities to pile more restrictions on top of what state laws already require. But, according to Bellucci, it’s unlikely to pass; similar legislation has already failed twice before.

“It’s really time for the public in general and our elected officials in particular to wake up and look at the facts,” Bellucci says. “Once you look at the facts you’ll know that many of these laws that are being passed are misguided at best.”

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Research shows that restricting where offenders can live within cities does little to no good when it comes to preventing sexual violence against children. A 2008 report from the Iowa Department of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning found that after a new residential restriction law went into effect, the number of sex crimes against children only increased. A 2010 study looked at whether sex offenders living closer to schools were more likely to re-offend compared to offenders who lived farther away; researchers found no significant relationship between recidivism and proximity to schools and daycares.

The question is, why are restrictive laws so popular among politicians and the general public when they do little to protect children?

Research shows that restricting where offenders can live within cities does little to no good when it comes to preventing sexual violence against children.

The popularity of these kinds of laws may be, at least in part, a response to the few, high-profile cases that catch national attention and skew our sense of reality when it comes to the prevalence and pathology of sexual crimes. Violent crimes often spur emotional reactions from the public and lawmakers, Amy R. Ramos reported for Pacific Standard in 2008:

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.

Registries provide parents with a false sense of security, given that 93 percent of people who sexually assault children are people those children know, and only 1.8 percent of registrants re-offend, according to Bellucci. Parents who try to keep their kids safe by keeping them away from people on the registry are "looking in the wrong direction," Bellucci says. "New laws need to be crafted that reflect reality and not these myths; myths of stranger-danger, myth of sexual assaults that happen in public places," she says.

So how should offenders be re-integrated into society?

One possibility, as Gee explains in his story, is an organization called Circles of Support and Accountability, that believes the best way to protect society against sex offenders is to carefully integrate them into society, with a support system. COSA volunteers help released offenders find housing, jobs, even friends. The program is being adopted in a number of cities across the country. And unlike restricted residency laws, studies show COSA groups might actually decrease recidivism.

Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.

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