Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sex Offender Shantytowns May Soon Return to Miami

A year ago, as many as 140 people, mostly sex offenders, lived under the bridge over Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami. The situation was aggravated when already onerous residency restrictions that required sex offenders to keep 1,000 feet away from where children gather was expanded by local ordinance to 2,500 feet.

Lawsuits were filled, as the shantytown became a national disgrace. As the suits wore on, the Miami-based Homeless Trust decided to take action. Part of the trust's mission is to clear up homeless encampments.

According to the Miami Herald, last October, the trust awarded an $818,800 contract to Tampa-based Lutheran Services of Florida, which identified available housing, offered employment assistance and agreed to pay rent and utilities. The homeless sex offenders did not receive the money, Lutheran Services paid landlords directly. In March, the entrance to the old camp was sealed off and the nonprofit located housing for 92 sex offenders.

However, the Herald is reporting that many of the Tuttle Causeway sex offenders are once again homeless, and many of others are on the verge of being out on the streets again. Most are unemployed and unable to continue to pay the rent that was subsidized for six-months by the Homeless Trust.

The inevitable result, some say, is that a sex-offender camp could emerge in a new location any day now.

"If they can't afford rent, we may be back to square one," Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton who is studying the impact of residency restrictions told the Herald. `"The problem with this solution it was only temporary, a band-aid."

My Take

The problem in Miami is not that they have more sex offenders than other major cities; or that the Miami sex offenders are more dangerous; or that they are less motivated to work; or that Miami employers are less likely to hire sex offenders. The problem is that Miami-Dade County's residency restrictions are five-times more restrictive than the state's residency restriction.

Florida requires that sex offenders stay 1,000 feet from where children gather, Miami-Dade County, which can enact more restrictive legislation than the state, requires a buffer of nearly one-half mile. That virtually eliminates sex offenders from living anywhere in Miami, maybe with the exception of living under a bridge.

Can this problem be solved? The Herald reported that Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walter A. McNeil wrote to the Homeless Trust: "[U]sing the 1,000-foot criteria, most of the sex offenders living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway would be able to find a place to live in accordance with state law."

It is that simple. Are children in Orlando, Tampa or Jacksonville at greater risk than those in Miami? Have sexual assaults of children decreased in Miami as compared to other cities in Florida? Miami's draconian residency restriction is a solution in search of a problem.

The Miami residency restriction actually makes children more vulnerable as sex offenders are forced underground. They are less easily monitored, and supervision is more difficult. Sex offenders caught up in this irrational, knee-jerk response to a serious problem often are left with little stability, no community support, no home and no hope.

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