Anti-Sex-Offender Zoning Laws Challenged

 

A major push to crack down on sex offenders in recent years may be backfiring in states where progressively strict housing rules are coming under court challenge and making it harder for law enforcement to track those convicted of rape, child molesting and similar crimes.

Laws in at least a half dozen states, including California, Georgia and Iowa, barring sex offenders from living near schools and parks are being challenged by ex-offenders who claim the laws unconstitutionally penalize them after they have served their time. Such laws also are raising alarms among law enforcers, who fear sexual predators will be harder to track because they have no place to live.

Slapping restrictions on where sex offenders can live became widely popular after the highly publicized 2005 murder of 9-year-old Florida resident Jessica Lunsford allegedly by a convicted sex offender who had moved into the neighborhood. Sixteen states and more than 400 cities nationwide have since adopted so-called "Jessica's Laws," joining six other states that restricted where registered sex offenders can live prior to 2005.

But the trend may be slowing down.

Lawmakers in Kansas last month decided against adopting strict residency restrictions after reviewing evidence that neighboring Iowa's zoning law had doubled the number of sex offenders unaccounted for since the law took effect in 2005. Iowa prosecutors and law enforcement officials are pushing the state Legislature to repeal the statute, which makes it illegal for sex offenders to live within 2,000 feet of schools or child-care centers.

"State lawmakers are wrestling with whether they've gone too far (restricting where sex offenders can live). But the difficulty is they're afraid if they do anything to roll back these laws, they'll get voted out of office," said Randall Wilson, legal director of the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which unsuccessfully sued to overturn Iowa's sex-offender residency rules in federal court.

Whether it's constitutional to effectively banish sex offenders from communities has yet to be determined. Iowa's law, considered one of the toughest in the nation, was upheld by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but is being challenged in state courts.

A federal judge is to hear a challenge in February to California's law, adopted by voters in November, which prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks. Approved by 70 percent of voters, the law would make it impossible for sex offenders to live in most of Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities.

Challenges against sex-offender residential restrictions in Illinois, Minnesota and New Jersey are pending in state courts. Restrictions enacted by Georgia in July face a federal class-action lawsuit. The Georgia plaintiffs, including an elderly man with Alzheimer's disease, another living in hospice who cannot walk and a woman convicted of having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old boy when she was 17, claim they pose no further threat to society.

Several sheriffs' departments in Georgia announced in October they would refuse to enforce portions of the law that would require evicting elderly or disabled individuals from nursing homes or hospices.

" Forcing a terminally ill man with less than six months to live out of his hospice-care facility because he resides within 1,000 feet of a church is irrational and does nothing to promote children's safety ," Sarah Geraghty, an attorney for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights , which is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

Texas in 2001 was the first state to establish "child safety zones" restricting where sex offenders can live. Many locally adopted ordinances exceed the state standards. Taylor Falls, Minn., for example, passed an ordinance barring all sex offenders classified as high-risk from living within the city limits. In New Jersey, which has no statewide residency rules, 113 cities have set restrictions that make it nearly impossible for sex offenders to live within city limits.

"The proliferation of these types of restrictions is making it more difficult for corrections to fulfill their mandate of helping offenders make a successful reentry into society," said Charles Olney, a research associate for the Center for Sex Offender Management , an affiliate of the U.S. Justice Department.

Olney and other experts also question how effective the laws are at protecting children, because strangers are responsible for only about 10 percent of sexual attacks on minors. Although incidents of strangers kidnapping and sexually assaulting a child often make headlines, the Justice Department estimates just over 100 of the 60,000 to 70,000 reports of sexual assault filed each year involved an abduction by a stranger.

"People are very, very fearful of strangers being near their children, and most of these laws are based on a knee-jerk reaction to that fear," Olney said.

 
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