When Palm Beach County, Fla., was sued earlier this year over its housing restrictions for registered sex offenders, its attorneys took an unusual approach: They suggested the county relax its law.
The county’s commissioner’s prompted largely by the lawsuit brought by a sex offender who claimed the limits rendered him homeless, voted in July to let such offenders legally live closer to schools, day-care centers and other places with concentrations of children.
“We realized the law was costing the taxpayers money [for services for the homeless] and was causing more problems than it was solving,” said county attorney Denise Nieman.
In the mid-1990s, states and cities began barring sex offenders from living within certain distances of schools, playgrounds and parks. The rationale: to prevent the horrible crimes sometimes committed by offenders after their release. In October, for instance, officials charged sex offender Darren Deon Vann with murdering two women in Indiana. Mr. Vann, who is suspected of killing several others, pleaded not guilty.
Now, a growing number of communities are rejecting or scaling back such limits out of concern that they don’t prevent repeat offenses, and, in some instances, may make sex offenders harder to track.
Before Palm Beach County shrunk its buffer zones, only small pockets of the county were open to sex offenders, said Mark Jolly, the head of the unit at the county sheriff’s office charged with tracking sex offenders. “They’d either just become homeless or they’d tell us they were homeless, then would move into housing within a restricted zone,” he said. “It became a nightmare to track these guys.”
Mike Rodriguez, the executive director of the county’s criminal justice commission, estimates that the change in the law increased the area in which sex offenders could live by about 70%.
In August, the Dallas City Council considered a proposal to adopt residency restrictions for Dallas’s nearly 4,000 sex offenders. Jerry Allen, a council member, said he “looked for research” to support the idea, but came up empty. So Mr. Allen persuaded the council to shelve the proposal.
A 2013 Justice Department study that examined Michigan’s and Missouri’s statewide restrictions showed they “had little effect on recidivism.” Other studies have found the vast majority of sex-offense cases involving children are committed not by strangers but by family members or others with established connections to the victims, such as coaches or teachers.
About 30 states and thousands of cities and towns have laws restricting where sex offenders can live, while others are adding them. In March, a 1,000-foot buffer from parks took effect in San Antonio. In July, Milwaukee passed a law banning sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a variety of places where children gather.
In October, the City Council in Elkhorn, Wis., population 10,000, passed an ordinance requiring offenders who move into town to live at least 2,000 feet from places such as schools and parks. The move was prompted by an influx of sex offenders released from the nearby county jail, many of whom had begun to congregate in the town’s business district, said Mayor Brian Olson. After the vote, he said he got several calls and letters from residents thanking him. “I think people were afraid to speak up on the issue, and that there was a bit of a sigh of relief,” Mr. Olson said. We’re just trying to keep our kids safe, and just did what a lot of other communities around the state have done,” he said.
Critics, however, say such moves do little more than score lawmakers political points and give an area’s residents a false sense of security. Some argue they can make communities less safe, by making it hard for offenders to find stable housing.
David Prater, district attorney of the county that encompasses Oklahoma City, said he and other state prosecutors have tried to get the state to relax its 2,000-foot buffer, to no avail. “No politician wants to be labeled the guy who lessens restrictions on sex offenders,” he said.
The police chief in Greeley, Colo., Jerry Garner, said he started having doubts about the restrictions when, a few years ago, Greeley officers discovered a registered sex offender living in his car, partly, recalls Mr. Garner, because he was “boxed out” of so much of the city. “Because of the restrictions, he was basically living as close to children as he wanted to,” said Mr. Garner. At his urging, in February Greeley slashed the size of the restricted areas for its 265 registered sex offenders from 1,000 feet around places like schools to 300 feet.
In October, three residents of a Miami outdoor encampment sued Miami-Dade County in federal court, claiming that sex-offender residency restrictions in the county rendered them “unable to locate stable, affordable housing,” thereby forcing them and “hundreds” of others into homelessness.
A Miami-Dade County spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit.
Miami-Dade County has come under fire for its residency restrictions before. In 2006, an encampment that ultimately grew to include more than 100 homeless sex offenders developed under a Miami freeway, largely as a result of the county’s residency restrictions. Four years later, to alleviate the problem the county eliminated some of its 2,500-foot buffer zones for sex offenders.
Some smaller towns are chucking restrictions, partly in the name of public safety. De Pere, Wis., a town of 23,000 south of Green Bay, tossed out its 500-foot buffer last year after reviewing data on its effectiveness, said several council members. The issue was reopened by some townspeople several months ago ,when a convicted sex offender moved across the street from a school for children with special needs. But the council didn’t budge.
“You track where they live, you check in on them, but you let them live at home, where they’re comfortable and stable,” said Scott Crevier, a DePere city councilman. “I feel we’re actually safer than a lot of other towns in the state that have them.”
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