by Jayson Hawkins
Few terms conjure a more apprehensive reaction than “sex offender.” Yet, like those convicted of any other crimes, the vast majority of sex offenders eventually serve their sentences and return to society. Various localities have adopted policies limiting where such individuals may live, usually by barring them from residing within a certain distance of school zones or other places children gather.
While residential restrictions on sex offenders have garnered support across the political spectrum, evidence for the effectiveness of such policies has been rare. Studies in several states have shown the policies make little or no impact on recidivism rates for sexual crimes; worse, the inability of formerly incarcerated sex offenders to find housing or employment due to residential restrictions may drive them to commit other types of crime.
One of the larger studies tracked 3,166 Minnesota sex offenders released from 1990 to 2002. By 2006, only 224 — about 7% — were in prison again for another sex-related crime. Grant Duwe, the Minnesota Department of Corrections research director, looked into the circumstances of the new crimes and determined that not a single case “would likely had been deterred by a residency restriction law.” Duwe also found that the perpetrators of the new crimes “rarely established direct contact with victims near their own homes” and that “sexual recidivism was affected by social or relationship proximity, not residential proximity.”
Duwe concluded that “a lack of stable, permanent housing increases the likelihood that sex offenders will reoffend and abscond from correctional supervision.”
A University of Missouri study of sex offender data in both that state and Michigan came to a similar conclusion. Criminologist Beth Huebner and fellow researchers said their findings “caution against the widespread, homogenous implementation of residence restrictions.”
A study in Florida measuring recidivists against nonrecidivists likewise noted “no significant relationship between reoffending and proximity to schools or daycares.” Nearness to places children gather, the authors wrote, “does not appear to contribute to sexual recidivism.”
A 2005 New York law requires “level three” sex offenders live no closer than 1,000 feet from a school. They must also locate such a residence before being released from prison, even if it means they remain incarcerated beyond the length of their original sentence.
For prisoners planning to return to families and jobs in New York City, the prohibition has marked almost every residential area in the metropolis as off-limits. Angel Ortiz was eligible for supervised release roughly eight and a half years into his ten-year sentence for robbery and attempted sexual abuse. He submitted dozens of addresses in New York City and other parts of the state, but all were rejected due to the 1,000-foot ban. Ortiz sat in prison another 25 months — well past the duration of his original sentence — for not being able to comply with residential restrictions.
The New York Court of Appeals upheld Ortiz’s ongoing imprisonment. Although the U.S. Supreme Court found the case failed to meet its criteria for granting certiorari, Justice Sonia Sotomayor did note that residential restrictions in New York raise “serious constitutional concerns” that “may not withstand even rationalbasis review.”
New York Court of Appeals Judge Rowan Wilson expressed doubt in his dissenting opinion that the state’s detention policy met the minimal standard of rationality. “[C]ourts and scholars alike have recognized that residency restrictions do next to nothing to prevent children from being victims of sex crimes,” Wilson wrote, adding that keeping people locked up because of such a policy “irrationally thwarts the New York State and City legislatures’ goals of fostering the successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into the community.”
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