Tide turns against US re­stric­tions on the sex of­fend­ers

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Bar­bara Gold­berg

Nearly two decades have passed since Josh Gravens, then 12 years old, was play­ing with his 8-year-old sis­ter and touched her body in an in­ap­pro­pri­ate way, land­ing him­self on a sex of­fender registry. His sis­ter for­gave him long ago but Gravens still wor­ries that the in­ci­dent could force him out of his Dal­las home. Con­cerns about sex­ual preda­tors have led com­mu­ni­ties in 30 US states to adopt laws lim­it­ing where reg­is­tered sex of­fend­ers can live, typ­i­cally keep­ing them away from schools, parks or other places where chil­dren con­gre­gate.

Gravens, now 29 and an ad­vo­cate for prisoner rights, spends a lot of his time court­ing Dal­las City Coun­cil mem­bers, in­clud­ing vol­un­teer­ing on elec­tion cam­paigns, in hopes of pre­vent­ing them from im­pos­ing rigid lim­its on where sex of­fend­ers may live. “It would be ab­so­lutely dis­rup­tive and pos­si­bly push me out of a town where I fi­nally feel like I’ve found my way,” said Gravens, who lives near a park. “Dal­las is the first city I felt I had a chance. A lot of places I was ter­ri­fied of my own name.”

In­creas­ingly tough laws adopted in the United States over the past 20 years have had the un­in­tended con­se­quence of forc­ing many of the na­tion’s 800,000 reg­is­tered sex of­fend­ers into home­less­ness. That in turn makes them harder to track, ac­cord­ing to law en­force­ment, and strips them of the stable homes ad­vo­cates say are key to get­ting a job and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Re­cently there has been some­thing of a back­lash against such res­i­dency re­stric­tions - with courts strik­ing them down in 2015 in New York, Mas­sachusetts and Cal­i­for­nia.

Last week in Rhode Is­land, a fed­eral judge granted a re­strain­ing or­der that al­lowed high-risk of­fend­ers who live within 1,000 feet of a school to stay in their homes at least un­til Jan­uary. This week in Texas, civil rights ad­vo­cates de­manded that 46 small com­mu­ni­ties im­me­di­ately re­scind their res­i­dency re­stric­tions or be sued. At the same time, Wis­con­sin leg­is­la­tors are con­sid­er­ing a bill for a statewide stan­dard, which would up­end lo­cal or­di­nances.

In Dal­las, where Gravens lives, the City Coun­cil set aside a pro­posal for res­i­dency re­stric­tions due to lack of ev­i­dence that bans work. Gravens, part of the ef­fort to get city lead­ers to moth­ball the plan, spoke out about how his mother’s call to a Chris­tian cen­ter seek­ing ad­vice about her son’s ado­les­cent cu­rios­ity had trig­gered a po­lice re­port that landed him in jail the next day. His sis­ter helped get his name off the pub­lic registry but Gravens, now a di­vorced fa­ther of three, re­mains on a sep­a­rate list avail­able to law en­force­ment un­til he turns 31.

‘not ef­fec­tive’

A Depart­ment of Jus­tice re­port in July on deal­ing with sex of­fend­ers found “the ev­i­dence is fairly clear that res­i­dence re­stric­tions are not ef­fec­tive” and may even ex­pose com­mu­ni­ties to greater dan­ger. Res­i­dency bans have arisen from pub­lic sex of­fender reg­istries, which re­quire peo­ple who have served their sen­tence to con­tin­u­ally up­date for decades - of­ten for life - their pho­to­graph, phys­i­cal de­scrip­tion, ad­dress and place of em­ploy­ment. Fail­ure to do so means felony ar­rest.

To­day, thou­sands of reg­is­trants are peo­ple like Gravens who com­mit­ted of­fenses as mi­nors, said El­iz­a­beth Le­tourneau, a pro­fes­sor at Johns Hop­kins Bloomberg School of Pub­lic Health. Supporters say res­i­dency re­stric­tions are meant to thwart adult strangers lurk­ing nearby to snatch child vic­tims. “I don’t want those peo­ple liv­ing near chil­dren,” said Ron Book, a Florida lob­by­ist and na­tion­ally rec­og­nized pro­po­nent of res­i­dency re­stric­tions. “If you put young chil­dren in the faces of peo­ple prone to com­mit sex­u­ally de­viant be­hav­iors on chil­dren, there is a greater chance than not that they’ll act out. They’ll do their thing,” Book said.

But more than 90 per­cent of of­fend­ers who tar­get chil­dren are known to the chil­dren and their fam­i­lies, and more than 30 per­cent of those of­fend­ers are mi­nors them­selves, said Jill Leven­son, a pro­fes­sor at Barry Univer­sity in Florida who has stud­ied of­fend­ers. In some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, enor­mous buf­fer zones sur­round­ing places where chil­dren gather have ef­fec­tively placed ev­ery pos­si­ble res­i­dence off-lim­its to sex of­fend­ers, of­ten re­gard­less of whether the vic­tim of their of­fense was a child.

Home­less in cal­i­for­nia

The Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion said in a 2010 re­port that af­ter a 2,000 foot (610me­ter) bar­rier was en­acted statewide in 2006, home­less­ness among paroled sex of­fend­ers “in­creased by ap­prox­i­mately 24 times. Presently, more than one-third of all sex of­fend­ers on pa­role have be­come tran­sient.” Pa­role of­fi­cers said it was harder to su­per­vise home­less parolees, and the depart­ment an­nounced in March it would no longer im­pose the re­stric­tions. “There are some hope­ful signs that ev­i­dence may tri­umph over emo­tion and hys­te­ria,” said Emily Horowitz, a pro­fes­sor at St. Fran­cis Col­lege in New York who has stud­ied the re­stric­tions. —Reuters

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