Thursday, April 27, 2006

"Restrictive residency laws add to the problem"

Daytona News-Journal

April 26, 2006

Sex offenders at home

Restrictive residency laws add to the problem

Before looking at solutions to the problem of tracking and controlling sex offenders who've served their time, consider what's creating the tracking problem in the first place.

In Florida, and in Volusia County in particular, state and local residency laws designed to keep offenders away from places "where children congregate" have turned into frenzies of one-upmanship and mazes of contradictions, vagueness and nonsense. Absent comprehensive evidence that shows whether they work or not, the laws aren't based on fact but on fear and prejudice. Law enforcement's response has been equally haphazard as police agencies have taken to interpreting the laws quite differently, or not enforcing them for lack of manpower, or enforcing them so stringently, when offenders are freed from prison, that offenders are being banished to their own underground.

The very laws designed to track and control them are causing the offenders to slip away from families, support groups and jobs. That sort of isolation would be destabilizing even for a law-abiding individual. It's not clear what effect that has had on the recurrence of sex crimes. What's clear is that in places where the numbers have been tracked -- in Iowa, which has a statewide law similar to Florida's -- three times more registered sex offenders have gone missing than before the law took effect.

Lack of uniformity and lists of exceptions and qualifiers in the laws make compliance a guessing game, and a sense of security even more so. Florida's residency restriction law that took effect Oct. 1, 2004, forbids offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, a park or other such places, but it does not apply to offenders who were convicted before it took effect. Nor does it apply to offenders convicted out of state. (The Legislature may be closing that loophole.) Daytona Beach Shores, Ormond Beach, DeBarry, Flagler Beach, Orange City, Oak Hill, Holly Hill, DeLand and Pierson all passed residency restriction ordinances. But the ordinances vary widely. In some towns, they apply only to sexual predators, a more violent category of sex offender (a predator is usually an adult convicted of a violent sexual crime on a child 12 years old or younger, or a repeat offender even if the child is older).

In some towns the buffer is 2,500 feet, making virtually the entire municipality off limits. In others, the buffer is 1,500 feet. In others still the beach is off limits whether or not portions of it are beyond the 2,500 feet from a place where children gather. Some towns enforce their ordinances regardless of when the offender was convicted; some only apply it to convictions post-dating their ordinance. None of the ordinances apply to offenders in their cars or trucks. An offender could be staking out a school all day long, or sleeping in a vehicle near a school. The ordinances are silent on those counts.

They're also silent on the most sobering fact of all: Out of 1,654 sex offense convictions in Flagler and Volusia counties in 2004 and 2005, fully 68 percent involved the child's care-taker. Experts note that fewer than 10 percent of all sexual offenses on children involve offenders who are complete strangers to the child.

The problem with sexual offenses on children is, tragically and overwhelmingly, under the child's own roof. If, as law enforcement agencies claim, fewer than 16 percent of all sexual offenses are reported, the problem is being largely neglected for lack of awareness. All the attention is going to the stranger, the lurker, the low-probability, high-profile scandal. Lawmakers could easily correct constituents' perceptions and raise awareness about (and focus resources on) the real problems. Instead, they're all too glad to feed off the sensational cases, write draconian laws and make no difference where it matters.

Sex offender residency laws' inherent contradictions are the best evidence that they likely do more harm than good. So a fair starting point regarding the safest accommodation of sex offenders in society should be to reconsider the laws and ordinances undermining the solutions they're meant to achieve. A useful starting point regarding children's safety from sex offenders should move much closer to home.

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