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Pushing sex offenders to the edges of society may sound like a good way to keep communities, and especially kids, safe. But what if residency restriction laws - which are gaining ground in Massachusetts - have the opposite effect?
By Catherine Elton | May 6, 2007
All across the state, they’re getting out their maps. Citizens and elected officials are holding meetings and proposing laws, carving up communities into zones in which convicted sex offenders may and may not live when they reenter society. They are penciling in lines around schools, day-care centers, playgrounds, and other places where children congregate in the hope of preventing repeat offenses, unspeakable crimes against children. This phenomenon is by no means unique to Massachusetts. Residency restrictions are the latest fad in sex-crimes legislation, and they are popping up all over the country, creating a domino effect: When one community adopts a residency restriction law, neighboring towns, fearing a migration of sex offenders over city lines, move to adopt their own. It sounds to many like a good idea, but it may turn out to be just the opposite.
The residency laws bring up serious civil liberties concerns, including that these measures apply to convicts after they have been punished and released and served their parole, and that in many cases, homeowners are exempt while renters may be required to move. And then there’s the fact that this type of post-release regulation doesn’t exist for other criminal classes: We don’t prohibit arsonists from living near gas stations.
But a less-discussed argument against the laws is that they don’t actually work to prevent sex crimes against children. Studies have shown, for example, that the majority of these crimes are perpetrated by family members or acquaintances, that many sex crimes are never reported, and that sex offenders often molest outside the area where they live. Some scholars go so far as to say that the measures could put children in greater danger, not less – because the sex offenders go underground, because therapy works to prevent re-offense, and because limited resources are wasted enforcing the laws. “There is no evidence that residency restrictions work, and there are some pretty good arguments why they are not likely to be effective,” says David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “No one who has any real professional experience in the management of sex offenders thinks these laws make much sense.”
Still, they are growing in popularity. According to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 23 states have passed residency restrictions for sex offenders – as have hundreds of individual cities and towns across the country, at least five of which are in Massachusetts. In addition, local governments in communities around the state are in various stages of considering the laws, and there are several bills before the Legislature calling for statewide residency restrictions.
The laws are offshoots of a legislative movement begun in the 1990s. In 1994, the federal Jacob Wetterling Act required states to track the whereabouts of released sex offenders. Wetterling, a Minnesota boy, was abducted in 1989, when he was 11 years old; he has never been found. An amendment to the Wetterling Act, Megan’s Law, was passed by Congress in 1996 and made the contents of state sex-offender registries public. It is named for 7-year-old Megan Kanka, who was raped and murdered in New Jersey by her neighbor – a registered sex offender. Just last year, the Wetterling Act was amended further by the Adam Walsh Act, which requires states to post their registries online. Walsh was 6 when he was abducted and killed in Florida in 1981.
Once public notification was enacted and average citizens started to find out where sex offenders lived, some of them weren’t too happy about who turned up down the street, and the first residency restriction laws were enacted in the late 1990s. Then, according to Charles Onley, a research assistant with the national Center for Sex Offender Management, in 2005 two highly publicized murders of young girls by sex offenders – one in Florida and one in Iowa – brought the issue to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. When the Iowa Supreme Court upheld that state’s residency restrictions after a class action suit said they violated the rights of offenders, the laws began to grow in popularity and increase in severity. Where states had mandated that offenders couldn’t live within 500 or 1,000 feet of a school, Onley says, communities began to cast the net wider, to 2,000 or 2,500 feet, and to include libraries, churches, school-bus stops, and community swimming pools.
Revere councilman George Rotondo is a nurse and the doting father of two young girls. Affable and outgoing, he seems motivated by a genuine desire to make the world – or at least his corner of it – a safer place for children. Merely contemplating the possibility that one of his daughters could fall victim to a sex offender is enough to move this burly man to tears. In 2005, Rotondo spearheaded the city ordinance that became Massachusetts’s first residency restriction for sex offenders.
“If you are an alcoholic, it’s not wise to live near a bar or liquor store,” he says. “We had sex offenders living across the street from a school where my daughter goes. There is something wrong with that. If you put kids near them, sooner or later they are going to get aroused and they are going to offend.” Rotondo is not alone in his conviction. Carol Willoughby, of Southborough, is trying to push officials there to adopt a residency restriction. She runs a day-care center in her home and until very recently had a registered sex offender living two doors down. It was a situation she likens to “putting steak in front of a dog.”
There is a problem with this thinking, however. The perception that sex offenders can’t help but re-offend, which for many is the central justification for residency restriction laws, is incorrect. Sex offenders have some of the lowest recidivism rates of any class of criminal – as few as 5.3 percent re-offend within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as opposed to rates in the 65 to 80 percent range for drug offenders and thieves. Experts think this misperception persists because people conflate sex offenders with predatory pedophiles, who have higher rates of recidivism but represent only a fraction of sex offenders. “Are there men who might lurk in schoolyards?” asks Dr. Martin Kafka, a psychiatrist with Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital and the president of the Massachusetts Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “Yes, but they’re extremely exceptional.”
As Kafka explains, sex offenders are a heterogeneous group that includes, among others, rapists, flashers, and young adults who have sex – usually consensual – with slightly younger teens. The category also encompasses child molesters, the criminal designation for adults who have any sexual contact with children, including, says Kafka, those who inappropriately touch a child a single time, perhaps under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or out of depression, anger, or alienation. Pedophiles, on the other hand, are adults who are persistently sexually aroused by children or are obsessed by them as sexual objects; they make up about half of child molesters, according to Kafka.
The State of Massachusetts sex-offender registry does differentiate among types of sex offenders. Released offenders belong to one of three tiers, with Level 1 representing those deemed to present the lowest degree of danger to the community and risk for re-offense and Level 3 the highest. The levels are determined on an individual basis by a state board that looks at a sex offender’s criminal record as well as by his behavior in prison and on parole; his work, treatment, and counseling records; victim-impact statements; and many other factors. Residency restrictions in Massachusetts towns have so far been drafted to apply only to Level 2 and 3 offenders, and in some cases, only Level 3. (In some other states all offenders are seen as equal, and are subject to the same restrictions.) Nevertheless, Kafka believes this tiered system is by no means perfect. “It’s a blunt tool,” he says.
Tiers or no, the idea that telling the public where sex offenders live – and keeping them out of certain places – can prevent sex crimes is based on false premises. “Sex offender registries and restriction zones are built on the concept that the person you must fear is the person you don’t know,” says Richard Wright, a criminologist who teaches at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater. But even though the laws were spurred by and are often named after the victims of high-profile cases where the harm to children was “awful, tragic, and real,” he says, “these cases of stranger child sexual assault are the minority.” Statistics from the US Department of Justice show that more than 90 percent of the juvenile victims of sex crimes know their assailant, and that child abductions by strangers – which are usually presumed to have a sexual component – are very rare; there were 115 such incidents nationwide in 1999, the latest year for which data are available.
Then there’s the problem of underreporting. “Most sex crimes are never known to the authorities,” says Rutgers University criminologist Michelle Meloy, who has studied sex offenders as an academic and supervised them as a probation officer. “Estimates are that, at best, registration lists are looking at 10 to 15 percent of all ‘sex offenders’ in your area.” Put another way, even if there is a stranger somewhere in a community who intends to sexually assault a child, the chances are slim that he (the majority of sex offenders are male) is on the registry.
Worse than the prospect that the restrictions don’t work, some experts say, is the very real possibility that they could put children in more danger, not less. Authorities in Iowa report that the number of sex offenders whose whereabouts are unknown has more than doubled since statewide residency restrictions went into place there. Recent news reports have spotlighted five registered sex offenders who live under a highway bridge near Miami – with state approval – because city and county residency restrictions have made it so difficult for them to find housing. Numerous studies have shown that slipping to the fringes of society is a potentially dangerous outcome, because community reintegration, therapy, and stability help reduce recidivism among the majority of offenders. Residency restrictions can make these men feel like outcasts and force them to live in isolated environments away from therapy and support systems, and so could actually be setting them up for re-offense. “They put added stressors and disruptions in the lives of these men, many of whom are trying to get their life together,” says Kafka, the Harvard psychiatrist. “You don’t want to put stressors on people who have a stress-responsive vulnerability.”
John, a registered sex offender living in Massachusetts who asked that his last name and city of residence be omitted because he says he fears notoriety, echoes this sentiment. He was released from prison in 2004 after serving six years for raping two young children to whom he is related. He has been designated a Level 3 offender by the state – the highest level of risk for re-offense. Although the town where he lives doesn’t have a residency restriction, he is concerned about the trend. “We are being scrutinized,” he says, “segregated from the general public, and it’s all counterproductive. There are a lot of feelings of rejection, isolation, and loneliness in my past. I wouldn’t say they caused what I did, but these feelings help create a risky emotional state. I have done my time and I continue to do time – I am on probation and I suffer emotionally for what I did every day, as I am sure my victims do too. I am trying to do everything possible to be a productive member of society.”
There has been some backlash brewing around the country against residency restrictions. The state prosecutors’ association in Iowa has called for the law there to be repealed, and restrictions are the subject of court challenges in other states.
But these developments aside, there may not be an end to the current wave of panic over sex crimes – and the attendant legislative responses – any time soon. In fact, experts predict that it will only get worse. Steven Levy, an accountant, the father of two school-age girls, and a member of Marlborough’s City Council, has been pushing a residency restriction there since late last year. His ordinance was passed but not signed by the mayor, who wanted to redraw some of the lines and make several other changes; at press time, a new version was coming up for a vote. Levy says that since Marlborough started debating the ordinance, he has been contacted by people in some 20 towns and cities around the state interested in getting similar measures implemented in their communities. He hopes that a groundswell of support will eventually convince Beacon Hill lawmakers to address the issue.
If that happens, House Minority Leader Bradley Jones Jr. will be ready. For four legislative sessions, including the current one, he has presented a bill that would ban Level 3 offenders from living or working near schools, among other places. He said he’s not sure whether his measure will fare any better this year than it has in the past, but it’s clear to him under what circumstances it could. “Unfortunately,” he says, “what causes this issue to advance are some very sad stories. As I often say, there are some bills that are one or two tragedies away from becoming a law.”
In his 1998 book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America, historian Philip Jenkins argues that this kind of attention to sex crimes has come in waves in American history, and that our current period is reminiscent of the panic between the late 1930s and the early 1950s, when a series of “sexual psychopath” laws were enacted in response to some high-profile crimes and to exaggerated claims made in the press and by J. Edgar Hoover that the country was in the grips of a sex-crime epidemic. That cycle ended in the 1960s, Jenkins says, when thinking about the penal system shifted from a focus on punitive measures to rehabilitation and treatment. This time around, he doesn’t foresee an ending. “It has ceased to be a cycle and has now been institutionalized,” he says. “That has sabotaged the off switch.” Jenkins believes that for a change to occur, there would have to be a major shift in the way citizens and lawmakers think about sex offenders. They would need to differentiate between the offenders who shouldn’t be let out of jail and those who can be rehabilitated.
Criminologist Michelle Meloy agrees. “We continue in the opposite direction of what empirical evidence suggests is our most likely option for success,” she says. “Because we have this misconception that these folks are all dangerous, and therefore the only way to address them is with punitive measures, using resources for therapy has become less popular. The public needs to know that if we treat them in prison and supervise them in a community setting, they’re less likely to re-offend.”
The public also needs to know that children are getting safer. According to the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services, sex crimes of all kinds have dropped substantially since the mid-1990s, after increasing between 1977 and 1991. Between 1991 and 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, substantiated sexual abuse cases dropped by 51 percent. The decline, says David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, is due to the increased incarceration of sex offenders, more intervention and prevention efforts, and better mental health treatment, including more widespread use of antidepressants and other psychiatric medicines. Residency restrictions didn’t do a thing to help.
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