For a portrait of the Kafkaesque nightmare criminal residency restrictions can create, go read about the permanent sex offender camp that took root several years ago beneath Miami's Julia Tuttle Causeway. Thanks to a local ordinance barring them from living within 2,500 feet of any place that children congregate, there was quite literally nowhere else for them to go.
It stands as an object lesson in how not to do public policy. It's a lesson that Grapevine has yet to learn.
Last week the Grapevine City Council, citing a "frightening and high" risk of recidivism, unanimously passed an ordinance barring those convicted of sexually assaulting a child from living within 2,000 feet of places where kids "commonly gather." This includes, but is not limited to, schools, parks, day cares, public swimming pools, hiking and biking trails and "video arcade facilities."
Look at a map of Grapevine, take note of all the parks and schools and kid-centric businesses, add in about 20 licensed child care centers, several of them operating out of people's homes, and a registered sex offender's housing options more or less disappear.
Maybe that's what the City Council was after. It's an understandable impulse, keeping the most thoroughly despised class of criminal out of one's city. But a 2,000-foot buffer is excessive and, research suggests, will do nothing to make the children of Grapevine any safer.
In a study posted on the website of Texas Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, Louisville justice administration professor Richard Tewksbury and Lynn University human services professor Jill Levenson pick apart the rationale for sex offender residency restrictions.
Sex offenders, the researchers write, pose a relatively small danger of re-offending compared with other criminals. Molested children are typically preyed upon by relatives or trusted caretakers, not strangers. Offenders who can't find a legal place to live have a tendency to "disappear," failing to register with local law enforcement agencies who must then expend resources attempting to track them down.
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More than anything, though, such restrictions don't work. Here's Tewksbury and Levenson reviewing some of the research:
A 2004 Colorado study found that sex offense re-offenders were randomly located and did not live closer to schools and parks than those who did not re-offend. In Minnesota, a 2003 study failed to find a relationship between proximity to schools and re-offending. A subsequent Minnesota study concluded that "there is very little support for the notion that residency restriction laws would lower the incidence of sexual recidivism, particularly among child molesters," and that "rather than lowering sexual recidivism, housing restrictions may work against this goal by fostering conditions that exacerbate [problems with] sex offenders' reintegration."
But dry academic reasoning tends to be ignored in the face of the kind of visceral fear and anger that comes with the thought of child molesters.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.