Sex offender residency restrictions getting a second, closer look

This USA Today article chronicles the growing skepticism of residency restrictions passed by several states. Three states – Iowa, Oklahoma and Georgia – are actively considering changes to their residency restrictions.

[OK State Rep Lucky] Lamons is among a growing number of officials who want to ease the “not-in-my-backyard” policies that communities are using to try to control sex offenders. In the past decade, 27 states and hundreds of cities have reacted to public fear of sex crimes against children by passing residency restrictions that, in some cases, have the effect of barring sex offenders from large parts of cities. They can’t live in most of downtown Tulsa, Atlanta or Des Moines, for example, because of overlapping exclusion zones around schools and day care centers.

Now a backlash is brewing. Several states, including Iowa, Oklahoma and Georgia, are considering changes in residency laws that have led some sex offenders to go underground. Such offenders either have not registered with local police as the laws require or they have given fake addresses. Many complain they cannot find a place to live legally.

The push to ease residency restrictions has support from victims’ advocates, prosecutors and police who say they spend too much time investigating potential violations.

The general concerns about harsh residency restrictions are the same everywhere:

  • Sex offenders do not register or give fake addresses and go rural/underground
  • This disappearance of sex offenders actually makes it more dangerous for the citizenry.
  • Restrictions do not distinguish between the low-risk and the high-risk.
  • Low risk offenders also end up being “banished” from cities and towns.

In Illinois, the need for housing for paroled sex offenders is “close to crisis levels”. Due to residency restrictions, parolees often have no place to live and because of that they cannot be paroled. This increases the burden on the prisons.

Some of the steps taken by the states mentioned above are seemingly in the right direction:

  • Iowa —Legislators began holding hearings in January on the effectiveness of a 2002 law that bars sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care facility. Sen. Keith Kreiman, Democratic co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says he expects the law to be revised but not repealed. “It is very politically risky to even hold hearings,” he says, because lawmakers who change the rules could be called “soft on crime.” State figures show sexual-abuse convictions have remained steady since the law took effect, but the number of sex offenders failing to register has more than doubled. Sen. Jerry Behn, a Republican who wrote Iowa’s law, says it may be overly broad. He says he’s talking to colleagues about how to focus on “true predators.”
  • Oklahoma —Like Lamons, other legislators say they’ll try to narrow their state’s restrictions. “Let’s apply them to those who are the highest risk to society,” says state Rep. Gus Blackwell, the Republican majority whip. Sgt. Gary Stansill, head of the Tulsa Police Department’s sex-crimes unit, says the current law applies to too many offenders and that he spends “way, way too much of my time” trying to enforce it. He says he investigates as many cases of sex offenders not registering as he investigates rape reports. He considers less than 10% of the state’s 8,000 convicted sex offenders to be high-risk and is lobbying lawmakers to focus on them.
  • Georgia —Republican state Rep. Robert Mumford, vice chairman of a judiciary panel, says he plans to propose a bill to scale back the state’s law. With the backing of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, he suggests removing many bus stops and churches from the list of areas where offenders are banned.
  • Kansas —On Feb. 12, the state Senate passed a bill that extends for another year Kansas’ moratorium on local governments restricting where sex offenders can live.

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