Friday, January 25, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: The residency restriction redux

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
January 25, 2013

Nearly two years have passed since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated an Allegheny County ordinance that restricted where convicted sex offenders could live. The Court concluded that the ordinance was at odds with Megan’s Law.

Megan’s Law requires convicted sex offenders to report their residency so that the neighborhood can be notified but does not restrict where offenders can live. The Court ruled that the ordinance would banish offenders to "localized penal colonies" with little access to jobs, support, or even their families.

Allegheny County's ordinance was enacted in 2007. A year later, three years before the ordinance was struck down, the Post-Gazette wrote that sex offender residency restrictions don’t work.

Dr. Jill S. Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL, said the problem is that residency restrictions are often one-size-fits-all. They often don't distinguish among the types of crimes that have been committed. Just because someone is designated a sex offender under state law does not necessarily mean that that person is a sexually violent predator or a pedophile.

There is ample scientific evidence that shows residency laws interfere with the reintegration of sex offenders into society. "Criminal offenders who have stable housing, stable employment and support systems in their lives, those people are less likely to go on and commit new crimes," Dr. Levenson said.

Academics continue to be dismissive of residency restrictions. "There was no significant relationship between reoffending and proximity to schools or day cares," concluded a 2010 study published in The American Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology. "The belief that keeping sex offenders far from schools and other child-friendly locations will protect children from sexual abuse appears to be a well-intentioned but flawed premise."

Sex offenders have no political cache. Politicians make a living bashing sex offenders. “Lock’em up and throw away the key” works well on the campaign trail. The flaw in this thinking is that it ultimately short-circuits the safeguards -- such as mandatory therapy, electronic monitoring and tight supervision -- that help offenders successfully re-enter society.

Even after acknowledging the research and the High Court’s decision, it is not difficult to figure out why a lawmaker would propose a new statewide residency restriction.

State Sen. Lisa Boscola recently introduced Senate Bill 86 to prohibit convicted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, day care, preschool, playground or recreation center.

"And then I want to carry it one step further and say and bus stops, because these are where children congregate and this is where I've been hearing complaints," said Boscola.

The proposed legislation would set up a protective barrier of 500 feet around any bus stop, making Pennsylvania the first state to pass such a restriction.

The unintended consequence? In most of Pennsylvania, especially outside of urban areas, a bus stop might be the end of every students drive-way. Senate Bill 86 would effectively eliminate just about any residency options for sex offenders.

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