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Sex-Offender Laws Lead to Rise in Homelessness

December 30, 2008 12:56 PM
by Denis Cummings
Many states’ strict residency restrictions for convicted sex offenders have been criticized for increasing homelessness and raising the likelihood that they will re-offend.

Sex Offenders Increasingly Homeless

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In 2006, California passed Proposition 83, increasing penalties for sex offenders and instituting stricter residency restrictions and monitoring for parolees. Since the law passed, the number of sex crime parolees registering as transient has increased from 88 to 1,056 as of June 2008—a jump of more than 800 percent.

Prop 83 forbids sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a park, leaving few areas for sex offenders to live. “In cities and suburbs, it’s almost impossible to find available homes that are not near parks or schools,” said PBS’ Jeffrey Kaye in a January 2008 NewsHour report. “What’s left are largely non-residential or industrial neighborhoods with few, if any, housing options.”

The restrictions have drawn criticism from police and parole officers, who now have a more difficult time tracking released sex offenders. The California Sex Offender Management Board, a board created by the state legislature in 2006, is also critical of the restrictions.
A December 2008 report concluded that, “The evidence shows an unmistakable correlation between the implementation of residency restrictions and the increase in homelessness among sex offenders.” It says that other evidence “shows that homelessness increases the risk that a sex offender may re-offend.”

Similar restrictions exist in at least 27 other states, many of which, like Prop 83, are modeled after Florida’s “Jessica’s Law” of 2005. In Georgia—where a 2006 law forbids sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, churches, community swimming pools, school bus stops and other places—sex offenders were required to register with a home address. Homeless sex offenders were unable to register and faced mandatory life prison sentences for failure to register twice.

The state supreme court ruled in October that the law’s registration requirements were “unconstitutionally vague.” Gerry Weber of the Southern Center for Human Rights said, “This law was so poorly drafted it was contrary to public safety. It was putting homeless persons in a situation where, if they said, ‘Hey, I’m homeless,’ they’d go to jail. It encouraged them not to report their addresses, which means no one would know where they lived.”

Though there are many admitted flaws in Jessica’s Law and its offspring, sex offender laws have the widespread support of the public. “The public definitely was sold a bill of goods on this one,” LAPD Detective Diane Webb told the Washington Post about Prop 83. “Unfortunately, it bodes well for politicians to support it because the public does have this false sense of security that this is somehow protecting them when it’s not.”

Related Topic: Opposition to sex offender laws

Many of the strictest sex offender laws are intended to combat violent sex offenders and those who target children. However, nonviolent and low-level offenders are also placed under strict penalties even though they are widely considered to be of little threat to society.

In Texas, an organization of sex offenders is advocating for more lenient laws for low-level offenders, allowing for more vigilant monitoring of high-threat offenders. “We believe that laws which will truly benefit the safety of our children, and society in general, must differentiate between those who are dangerous offenders and those who are not,” the organization states.
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