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Housing Restrictions on Sex Offenders Spread Even as Evidence Shows They Don’t Work

| May 7, 2016

sex offenders restrictions laws

Isolating sex offenders doesn’t work, studies show. (Leonard J Matthews)

In the last couple of years, the number of sex offenders living on the streets of Milwaukee has skyrocketed, from 16 to 205. The sharp increase comes as no surprise to some. There are few places for them to live.

In October 2014, the City of Milwaukee began prohibiting violent and repeat sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school, day care center or park. That left just 55 addresses where offenders can legally move within the 100-square-mile city. And their living options soon will become more limited across Wisconsin. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in February that prohibits violent sex offenders from living within 1,500 feet of any school, day care, youth center, church or public park in the state.

Cities and states continue to enact laws that restrict where convicted sex offenders can live, applying the rules to violent offenders such as pedophiles and rapists, and, in some cases, those convicted of nonviolent sex crimes, such as indecent exposure. [Palm Coast, Ormond Beach, Deltona and Daytona Beach, among others locally, all enacted 2,500-foot restrictions in the late 2000s.]

They are doing so despite studies that show the laws can make more offenders homeless, or make it more likely they will falsely report or not disclose where they are living. And though the laws are meant to protect children from being victimized by repeat offenders, they do not reduce the likelihood that sex offenders will be convicted again for sexual offenses, according to multiple studies, including one from the U.S. Department of Justice.

In all, 27 states, including Florida, have blanket rules restricting how close sex offenders can live to schools and other places where groups of children may gather, according to research by the Council of State Governments. Hundreds of cities also have restrictions, according to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA). And many laws are becoming more restrictive — along with Wisconsin, they expanded last year in Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma and Rhode Island.

Restrictions can have the opposite of their intended effect, encouraging offenders to abuse again.

The restrictions can make offenders’ lives less stable by severely limiting their housing options, and can push them away from family, jobs and social support — all of which make it more likely they will abuse again, according to researchers who have studied the laws, such as Kelly Socia, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

“If [the laws] don’t work, and they make life more difficult for sex offenders, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot,” Socia said.

Some state and local governments — in California, Florida, Iowa, Georgia and Texas — are finding the laws don’t work and are changing them or, more often than not, being told by the courts to do so. Many courts, such as in California and Michigan, have found the laws to be unconstitutional for being too vague or too restrictive in impeding where offenders can live.

False Perceptions

Psychologists who have treated sex offenders, such as Gerry Blasingame, chair of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending, say the impetus behind the laws — the belief that offenders who have been released will continue to seek out child victims who they do not know — is more perception than reality. Most perpetrators abuse children they know; just one in 10 perpetrators of child sex abuse is a stranger to the victim.

There may be merit in restricting housing for sex offenders who victimized a child they did not know, Socia said. But these laws often apply to all registered sex offenders, including anyone convicted of a sex crime, even nonviolent offenses such as indecent exposure and statutory rape.

Maia Christopher, executive director of the ATSA, said the laws are based on “the myth of the sex offender — that there is a stranger who is lurking in the bushes and grabbing people” and that they cannot be treated. Some treatment programs, such as one in Minnesota, have been found to reduce recidivism rates for sexual offenses, but researchers haven’t concluded that treatment is effective, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study in 2003, the most recent available, found that 5.3 percent of inmates released from prison after being convicted of a sex offense are arrested for another sexual offense within three years. (Although researchers generally acknowledge that the recidivism rate may be low because these crimes are underreported.)

After studying housing restriction laws for about a decade, Socia said he hasn’t seen one that has been effective in reducing recidivism. Several studies, including one from Floridaand another from Minnesota, have shown the laws have no effect.

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What they can do is make offenders even greater outcasts. A U.S. Department of Justicereport released in October 2014 said there is fairly clear evidence that residency restrictions are ineffective, and the laws cause a “loss of housing, loss of support systems, and financial hardship that may aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk.”

After California created new restrictions in November 2006, the number of homeless offenders on parole shot up from 88 to 1,986 in March 2011, according to a report from the state’s Sex Offender Management Board. And the board soon will release a study that will show that, once homeless, a sex offender is more likely to reoffend.

“These guys that are homeless, they become desperate,” said Blasingame, a board member. “They look for opportunities.”

California stopped enforcing its blanket rule requiring offenders to stay 2,000 feet from schools and parks statewide last year, after the state Supreme Court ruled in March 2015 that the law imposed unconstitutional restrictions on paroled sex offenders in San Diego County. The restrictions made 97 percent of rental housing there unavailable to offenders. And, the court found, that contributed to homelessness, and hindered the parolees’ access to medical, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling and social services.

Following the court decision, the state started to enforce the rules on a case-by-case basis. As of October, a third of the 5,901 offenders in the state needed restrictions and the rest didn’t, the state found. From February 2015 to October 2015, the number of transient sex offenders without a permanent address fell by 20 percent, from 1,319 to 1,057.

Advocates — such as Christopher of the ATSA and Kurt Bumby, director of the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project run by the Center for Effective Public Policy that provides guidance on how to best manage sex offenders — are encouraged by efforts in some states. They point to Oregon, Vermont and Washington, where there is a more unified effort among state corrections and parole officials and nonprofits to provide a safe, structured re-entry for offenders, using monitoring, stable housing and access to treatment.

In a state-run program in Vermont, Circles of Support and Accountability, community volunteers meet regularly with high-risk sex offenders to offer support. Program participants have lower rates of recidivism.

‘A Dumping Ground’

In Milwaukee, most of the 55 places where offenders can move to are single-family houses, tucked in alcoves of pricy suburban areas. City officials there passed the 2014 law out of desperation, said Alderman Michael Murphy, who voted against the ordinance.

The city had become “a dumping ground” for sex offenders, he said, because most other cities in the county had passed residency restrictions, leaving nowhere else for the offenders to go. Sixty-three percent of county residents live in the city, but 2,269 sex offenders, or 82 percent of the county’s total, live there. The rules ended up pitting cities against each other, Murphy said.

But at least one state prohibits local government from creating the restrictions: Kansaspassed a ban in 2006, and New Hampshire is thinking of doing the same.

Since Milwaukee enacted its law, Dereck McClendon, who works with prisoners being released from jail, said he has watched more sex offenders released onto the streets because they have no place to go. McClendon, a program director for Genesis in Milwaukee Inc., a Christian nonprofit that helps people find work after prison, said each ex-offender needs to be given an assessment, and then help re-entering the community. If not, he said, they will inevitably start to get into trouble.

“Man, I tell you, the lack of hope these men possess,” he said. “Oh man, it kills me.”

Murphy and others in Milwaukee are pleading with Walker for a statewide solution. The law the Legislature passed this year that establishes the 1,500-foot rule for violent sex offenders also requires the state to release prisoners only to the county where they lived before, and allows a judge to rule that an offender being released from jail can live within a restricted area if there are no other options. Murphy said that helps, but doesn’t solve the problem.

The new Wisconsin law also won’t address what Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch calls “a patchwork quilt of sex offender laws” across the state, because it does not supersede local rules.

He introduced a bill that would ban local restrictions and create a 1,000-foot restriction statewide — a smaller restriction than some cities have currently.

“Having a statewide, easily understandable residency requirement will mean we can watch them,” Kleefisch said. “If they are underground or off the grid, God only knows what they’re doing.”

–Jen Fifield, Stateline

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15 Responses for “Housing Restrictions on Sex Offenders Spread Even as Evidence Shows They Don’t Work”

  1. Ken Dodge says:

    From Conclusion (p.501)
    Given the paucity of data suggesting that sex offender residence restrictions prevent recidivism and the growing body of evidence indicating that housing policies increase transience, homelessness, and unemployment, these laws may be contraindicated. The belief that keeping sex offenders far from schools and other child-friendly locations will protect children from sexual abuse appears to be a well-intentioned but flawed premise. The data from this study do not support the widespread enactment of residential restrictions for sexual offenders. The time that police and probation officers spend addressing sex offender housing issues is likely to divert law enforcement resources away from behaviors that truly threaten our communities.”

    And statistics increasingly show increasing employment opportunities for statisticians.

  2. Geezer says:

    Where to put these sex offenders after they’ve served their time–quite the question.
    I don’t envision yellow ribbons ’round the old oak tree.
    They’re about as popular as roaches in a raisin box.
    If in doubt–remember: the raisins don’t have legs or antennae.

  3. Vicki Henry says:

    The Supreme Court’s Crucial Mistake About Sex Crime Statistics
    It is very important that you read the abstract below and then the full 12 page essay by Ira Mark and Tara Ellman.
    This brief essay reveals that the sources relied upon by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Doe, a heavily cited constitutional decision on sex offender registries, in fact provide no support at all for the facts about sex offender re-offense rates that the Court treats as central to its constitutional conclusions. This misreading of the social science was abetted in part by the Solicitor General’s misrepresentations in the amicus brief it filed in this case. The false “facts” stated in the opinion have since been relied upon repeatedly by other courts in their own constitutional decisions, thus infecting an entire field of law as well as policy making by legislative bodies. Recent decisions by the Pennsylvania and California supreme courts establish principles that would support major judicial reforms of sex offender registries, if they were applied to the actual facts.
    This paper appeared in Constitutional Commentary Fall, 2015.…/the-supreme-courts-crucial-mistake-a…

    The U.S. Department of Justice, July 2015, report shows that sex offender laws are ineffective and create more harms than producing any genuine good. See

    Vicki Henry, Women Against Registry

  4. Shelly Stow says:

    Ken, your somewhat cryptic comment is probably trying to imply that the science is flawed. If you have any evidence supporting the efficacy of residency or of presence restricts in the aid of increased public safety, maybe you can present it. Otherwise, the earth really is round; for some reason we are experiencing a climate warming trend; and residency restrictions are ineffective and counter-productive.

  5. antiestablishmentarianism says:

    The goal of the excessive range restrictions has never really been about reducing recidivism even though they say it is. It’s about kicking them out of their community. “If my city/town/state is more restrictive, they’ll move away to a less restrictive area” is the thoughts these legislatures have, but are not telling that to the public. This is why if the country is going to require restrictions, the federal government needs to step in and say how restrictive they can be. I think 1000 feet is perfectly reasonable in most localities even though the studies show it does no good. It’s not overly restrictive, but 2500 is ridiculous.

  6. Shelly Stow says:

    Ken, what do you mean by your comment? Are you aware of evidence that supports the efficacy of residency restrictions as public safety strategy? If so, could you share it, please?

  7. Lin says:

    “Most offenders victimize those they know”
    Yes, unfortunately the targets are often in their own home. But that doesn’t mean that they should be close to playgrounds, schools, etc. those places where our children should feel safe. I have no sympathy if they have a tough time finding housing. There must be consequences for this deviant behavior. From what I have read and what I know from life — the recidivism rate is high for sex crimes. The crimes are still under reported and under prosecuted. Hell, there are still untested rape kits (hope the new attention to this produces more captures). There are many cases of abuse that never see the light — victims of stranger and known perpetrators don’t report at all.

    Let’s not make it easy for those convicted of sex abuse to live next door.

  8. antiestablishmentarianism says:

    Lin- “from what I have read and what I know from life” The recidivism rate for sex offenders is actually at around 5.5% (from a US Bureau of Justice study) and has remained at that rate since before and after the registry, so please cite what “you read” and how can you possibly know anything about recidivism from life? That makes no sense. That sounds just like people who are racists because someone of another color did them wrong in the past. “Consequences for this deviant behavior” That’s what jail time, parole, probation, etc. are for is punishment of crimes. The advocates for the registry constantly claim it’s not a punishment and if it was, it would actually be unconstitutional because it denies a lot of rights. I have yet to see an average American call it anything but a punishment though. You want those rape kits tested? Do away with the registry and maybe law enforcement will have the resources to test them. The registry isn’t free and neither are rape kits, but that’s the choice you’re making. You are right that children should feel safe in their school, but restricting convicted offenders by range is not going to make them any safer. As a matter of fact, the few offenders who do a school or park abduction drive there and put the child in a vehicle. An offender intent on doing that isn’t going to take them across the street if they live there. They’d be quicker to go to a different school. The bottom line is the evidence does not support the registry and it’s a smoke screen for further punishment.

  9. Lin says:

    Even this discussion has devolved into name calling “racist?”
    I won’t bother answering your points because obviously I’m talking to the wall.
    Can’t afford testing rape kits, choose between testing and registry?

  10. Shelly Stow says:

    But Lin, he is right, and everything he says is supported by evidence. And we do choose every day to favor perpetual punishment for those who have already offended over prevention for the future. So many millions are spent on the sex offender industry across the nation, and virtually none of it is focused on victims or prevention. Untested rape kits is just one small thing that could be done to bring justice to some victims, but what is needed on a huge scale are education and prevention programs mandated in every school. And his example of what makes some people racist is an analogy, and a good one. Too many people form their opinions about all sorts of things based on one or two negative personal experiences and don’t bother to read widely about the issue or look at research or verified evidence.

  11. Sherry says:

    Awww. . . Shelly and Anti. . . while you are quite correct in using and referring to “factual” data. . . debating with those that form their life perceptions strictly from the likes of FOX/ their own emotionally created biases certainly can be an exercise in complete frustration and futility. I know this from my own experience with some who comment here frequently. I applaud you for your valiant efforts! Never give of hope that some will heed your words and begin to research for the actual truth in the world beyond Rush.

  12. Sherry says:

    OOPS! My last post was meant for you as well Vicki. . . thanks for the information!

  13. Lin says:

    After these last few posts I just have one question
    What exactly entitles you, who are patting each other (figuratively) on the back, to connect an opinion about a registry to an awful insult like a racism analogy then connect to Fox News, acting on emotions?

    It has gotten old for me personally. I won’t try to prove why I’m not racist — I don’t have to.
    Thoughts and feelings are mixed for all of us not just me or one party — neither opinions nor emotions are negatives.

    I don’t pick apart your posts to lump you with distasteful positions of other people

    It’s easier for you to pull out the insults than to really consider what I’m saying. It really shuts down discussion. You win.

  14. Shelly Stow says:

    Lin, no. I haven’t called you a racist or done any back-patting or attempted or intended to insult you in any way. I said that the racism thing was an analogy; I apologize for offending you. All I want is for people to find out the facts. No one wins–no one–as long as children are being harmed. As long as we expend all our resources on programs that don’t work, such as public notification and registration and housing restrictions, we are ignoring the actual problem and doing nothing toward prevention and helping victims of child molestation.
    I intended no personal attack on you. I sincerely apologize if I came across that way.

  15. Country rock Dog says:

    Talk is inexpensive when one is on the sidelines of cretinism, I have a whole passel of company when I say our esteemed government should in actuality seriously restrict the places that accept these vile creatures so much until the only real estate they can lay their foul skulls down is in Supermax Prisons or EPA designated Superfund toxic waste landfills, no other option. Any violator failing…..let’s be honest about this, they don’t fail….they refuse to register should be remanded to a Supermax prison SHU for the rest of his miserable existence. Any violator who actually sexually assaults an innocent victim again should be put to death in the gas chamber. Only thing is I believe California, Arizona, Missouri, Wyoming & Oklahoma are the only remaining states that rightfully execute the guilty in that fashion, GOD forbid a murderous raping two legged animal should have to suffer death in any way unlike his victims who are psychologically & sometimes physically scarred for life. Thanks for reading.

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