Bans Drive Sex Offenders Underground?
By Steve Yoder July 7, 2014
Early last year,
set aside a sliver of land in its Harbor Gateway neighborhood for the city’s
newest and smallest park: two jungle gyms on a fifth of an acre. Los Angeles
The project was more than just an effort to increase the city’s green space. City Council members made clear that one of the park’s principal reasons for existence was to force 33 people on the
sex offender registry who were living in a nearby apartment building to move
out. State law bars those on its registry from living within 2,000 feet of a
park or school. California
“We came together, working with the police department, to problem-solve, to send a message that Harbor Gateway cannot be dumped upon with a high number of registered sex offenders,” councilman Joe Buscaino said at the park’s opening.
But the state ban itself already clusters registrants into a limited number of areas, according to a September 2011 report by the California Sex Offender Management Board, which was created by the state legislature to advise it on sex offender policies.
But a court decision in
last year could mark a shift in momentum. Colorado
Ryals, a high school soccer coach convicted in 2001 for a consensual sexual
relationship with a 17-year-old student, was sentenced to seven years’
probation and put on the state sex offender registry. Colorado
Eleven years later, in 2012, he and his wife bought a house in the city of
. But the police
department told him he couldn’t live there because of a city ordinance
prohibiting sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, parks and
playgrounds—a law that effectively made 99 percent of its homes and rentals off
limits to offenders. Englewood
Ryals sued, and last August a federal court concluded that the city’s ban went too far.
The judge ruled that it conflicted with the state’s existing system for managing and reintegrating sex offenders and could encourage other towns and cities to do the same, effectively barring offenders from the entire state.
has appealed, but two of the
state’s five other cities that have residence bans have softened their
restrictions since the decision. Englewood
The other three are awaiting the outcome of the appeal, according to John Krieger of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of
which represented Ryals. Colorado
Rolling Back Restrictions
California, scores of cities are rolling back their
restrictions after an court ruled last April in favor of registrant Hugo Godinez, who
challenged the county over its ordinance barring sex offenders from entering
Godinez, convicted for a misdemeanor sex offense in 2010, was arrested the following year for what he said was mandatory attendance at a company picnic in a county park. In that case too, a state appeals court decided that the county’s ordinance usurped the state’s authority. The appeals court ruling was upheld by the state’s highest court.
Since the Godinez decision, 28
cities that have similar “presence” restrictions, which ban offenders from
entering places like libraries and parks, have repealed those rules. Another 24
say they are revising their ordinances, according to Janice Bellucci, a California attorney. California
Since the April decision, Bellucci, who represents the advocacy group California Reform Sex Offender Laws, has sent letters demanding repeal to cities with presence restrictions. She also has sued a dozen other cities that haven’t changed their rules since the decision.
And this year,
Supreme Court could make an even bigger ruling—whether to toss the state’s
2,000-foot law itself. California
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge found it unconstitutional in 2010, but the city appealed. The judge cited an increase in homelessness among registrants as a key reason. Statewide, the number of homeless registrants has doubled since the law passed in 2006, according to the 2011 Sex Offender Management Board report.
At least two other states—
Rhode Island and —have been sued
since 2012 over their own residency laws. New York
One finding in the Ryals’ case in
case could resonate in other states. Colorado
The judge found compelling a 2009 white paper by Colorado’s Sex Offender Management Board concluding that residency bans don’t lower recidivism and could actually increase the risk to the public. According to the paper, that’s because they drive offenders underground or toward homelessness, making them harder for police and probation officers to track.
Often the most stable place for an offender to live is with family members. But if they have homes in prohibited areas, the offender might instead try to drop off the registry by failing to report their permanent address, says Sara Neel of the Colorado ACLU. The problem, which isn’t specific to
, could strengthen court challenges
in other states, she says. Colorado
Those 2009 findings led the
board to go further in a report this January, which recommended that state lawmakers
consider legislation prohibiting cities and towns from enacting their own
offender residency rules. Colorado
Two other states have moved in that direction. The
legislature banned local residency restrictions in 2010. And in Kansas , the state
House of Representatives has twice approved a bill that would bar local ordinances, though it’s died both
times in the state Senate. New Hampshire
Bellucci argues that there’s more to come in other states. The “pendulum of punishment,” she claims, is starting to swing the other way.
“For a long time, ever-harsher sex offender laws were being passed and there was no one opposing them,” she told The Crime Report. “After more than a few lawsuits, elected officials are realizing that there’s a downside to this.”
(A spokesperson for the
for Missing &
Exploited Children, which has supported stronger sex offender laws like the
federal Adam Walsh Act, said it had no one available to comment on
the center’s position on residency restrictions.) National
Sponsors of the
bill say they’ll keep trying, and it’s gained some unlikely
allies. New Hampshire
“My first term, I was pretty much a hard-liner,” said Republican representative Larry Gagne during a January committee hearing.
“I said, ‘Put [sex offenders] in outer space; put them all on an island.’ But I changed my mind after a [police] sergeant came in and said, ‘If they go underground, we can’t find them.’”