Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Geography of Punishment: How Huge Sentencing Enhancement Zones Harm Communities, Fail to Protect Children

Original Article

This is from 2008, and about drug offenses, but the same applies to ex-sex offenders and the residency restrictions/buffer zones they have to live by.

Executive Summary:
Since 1989, Massachusetts has required that certain drug offenses receive a mandatory minimum sentence of two years’ incarceration if the offense occurs within 1,000 feet of a school. The law has been amended twice, first to add 100-foot zones around parks and playgrounds and then to create 1,000-foot zones around accredited daycare centers and Head Start facilities. Originally intended to protect children from the adverse effects of drugs and drug-related activity, the law was part of a legislative package put forth by Governor Dukakis to “get drugs out of our schools by 1990.” (And has still not done so!) The sentencing enhancement zones were intended to work as a geographic deterrent; identifying specific areas where children gather and driving drug offenders away from them with the threat of the enhanced penalty. However, the law does not require that the defendant be aware of the zone, and applies regardless of proximity to the protected location, whether school is in session, and whether children are present. Although unseen at the time, these fundamental flaws guaranteed that the law would not work.

A decade of empirical research has shown that the law fails to move drug activity away from children while subjecting Black and Latino defendants to longer sentences. Previous research by William Brownsberger and Susan Aromaa indicates that the statute’s passage has failed to move drug dealers away from schools. The Justice Policy Institute’s report Disparity by Design (PDF) has demonstrated that extensive sentencing enhancement zones result in harsher sentences for Black and Latino defendants because they tend to live in urban areas, where zones often blanket large areas. The Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, has noted that “more drug dealer arrests and standard-length incarceration” are more effective than mandatory minimums at reducing drug consumption and drug-related crime, and that “treatment of drug offenders is the most effective approach of all.”

This report is the first to study the geography of Massachusetts’ zone law in both urban and rural areas and to determine whether a racial disparity exists between the populations inside and outside the zones. Mapping rural and urban zones’ demographic makeup and analyzing sentencing data in Massachusetts’ Hampden County, the authors found significant punitive inequalities inherent in the law’s structure, even though rural and urban children use drugs at the same rates. We determined that this directly translates to greater rates of incarceration for Black, Latino, urban, and poor defendants, without improving children’s safety. The findings include:

  • Residents of urban areas are five times more likely to live in a zone than those in rural areas.
  • Latinos are almost twice as likely as Whites to live in a zone and be subject to the enhanced penalty.
  • Since the boundaries of the zones are nearly impossible to reliably estimate and avoid, the statute fails to move drug activity away from schools, parks and other locations where children are present.
  • People are difficult or impossible to see from 1,000 feet away, especially in urban areas, where even whole school buildings can disappear from view. The legislature should not have assumed that all drug offenders within 1,000 feet of a school are intending to sell to people at the school. (And yet Ron Book, lobbyist in Florida, claims that ex-sex offenders can peer out of their homes from 2,500 feet away, to drool over kids playing in the parks?)

The report offers three suggestions to improve the law’s ability to protect children from the drug trade and reduce its disproportionate effect on urban, Black, Latino, and poor populations.

  1. Restore judges’ discretion in sentencing, so that harsh sentences intended for adults who deal drugs to children are not automatically imposed on all defendants who live near schools.
  2. Repeal the mandatory minimum sentence for drug offenses near schools and instead enforce existing laws that create sentencing enhancements for selling drugs to children or using children in drug transactions.
  3. Reduce the sentencing enhancement zones to 100 feet around schools to match the distance around parks and require that the property line of designated areas be marked. This would create a more logical protected area and would more effectively shift drug activity away from schools and parks. Smaller zones would also drastically reduce the current law’s disparity in sentencing.

By continuing to enforce the sentencing enhancement zone law, the Commonwealth is spending huge sums to incarcerate minor drug offenders who were not endangering children. Fruitless incarceration of these addicts costs the state more than $31 million a year, when it would cost much less to provide effective drug treatment. As the state’s budget deficit is predicted to surpass $3 billion, it is both ethically and fiscally necessary to reform legislation that incarcerates large numbers of people, for long periods, for minor offenses. This is especially true when that legislation not only fails its objective to protect children, but also has a detrimental effect in disproportionately affecting minority communities.

AL - Professors warn about new sex offenders law

Laws will backfire!
Original Article


By M.J. Ellington

MONTGOMERY - Alabama's new sex offender reporting law is designed to increase oversight of people who commit sex crimes, but two researchers warn if the laws are too restrictive, they may backfire and result in more, not fewer, sex offenses.

J.J. Prescott, University of Michigan Law School professor, and Jonah E. Rockoff, Columbia University Business School professor, tracked sexual offender data after states established sex offender registries. The duo did not study Alabama's new law but analyzed similar laws in other states for their report.

Rockoff said states passed stricter laws hoping to reduce the number of repeat sex offenses and make the public feel safer. But in a study encompassing several years, he and Prescott found that such requirements make “sticking to the straight and narrow much less attractive than just throwing up your hands and returning to crime,” Prescott said.
- I agree with this, to a point. Some of those without a hope for the future, may do just that, and commit another unrelated or even related crime, but, the facts are that most sex offenders do not re-offend in the first place, most are re-arrested for technical violations or other crimes, not a new sex crime.

He considers the finding significant since the purpose of most of laws is to cut down on repeat crimes.
- I agree, the laws were passed under the false pretense that sex offenders have a high recidivism rate, when studies show it's the exact opposite.

Put differently, living life as a convicted sex offender can be pretty miserable under these laws,” Prescott said.
- And I personally think that is the ultimate goal.

The effect is that the threat of going back to prison for committing new offenses may seem less objectionable than living on the outside under very restrictive rules, he said.

... Some of these requirements, particularly the ones that involve informing the public about the identity and whereabouts of sex offenders, are so costly to offenders that they become more, rather than less, likely to commit more offenses,” Prescott said.

While Prescott's study did not track Alabama sex offenders, he said it will be extremely difficult for some sex offenders to comply with the new law's requirements. He used Alabama's requirements for homeless sex offenders as an example.

Homeless offenders in Alabama with no fixed residence must report where they are living and pay a $10 registry update fee every seven days. If they do not, they will be sent back prison under the new law, he said.
- I thought they waved this for folks who could not pay the extortion fee? Anyway, this would be $40 per month, and $480 per year, that is more than non-homeless people pay. And do you expect a homeless person to be able to pay this? Come on, this is just setting them up to fail, I guess, so they can keep the prison money making business in operation.

If the $10 fee stops the offender from reporting because he doesn't have the money and can't get a job because he is an offender, the state will ultimately pay more to keep him in prison. Alabama's cost per inmate per year is about $22,000.

Alabama's new law, based on a bill by Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has far-reaching registration and reporting requirements for convicted sex offenders.

Eighty percent of it was making sure we're in compliance with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006”, Ward said.
- They pass a law without regard as to how much it will cost in the long run, in order to get grant funding, which will be a lot less than they will spend. With logic like this, no wonder this country is broke. This is like spending several thousands of dollars on lottery tickets, then you finally win a couple hundred, you've actually not won anything, you've lost!

The act, in part, establishes new crimes or expands federal jurisdiction over existing crimes in nine areas, including child abuse, kidnapping, obscenity, child pornography, use of the Internet to distribute obscenity or drugs and record-keeping. It also established new offenses and penalties for failure to register as a sex offender.

The state Department of Public Safety and the Alabama District Attorneys Association asked Ward to sponsor the bill, he said.

Local sheriff's offices and police departments are in training to learn how to enforce the law and many expect to devote at least one person on their staff to keep up with reporting changes. The law does not allocate state funding for enforcement.

Some individuals on the House and Senate committees who took up Ward's bill and a similar House bill by Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Gadsden, said there was little controversy or discussion about the legislation.
- Of course not, like Nancy Pelosi said, "we have to pass the bill so you can see what's in it!" That is the same mentality here. If it has "sex offender" in the title, it's passed, regardless of what is in the bill, or the ramifications.

I was for it. There really wasn't a lot of opposition,” said Rep. Greg Burdine, D-Florence.
- I wonder if he, or any of the others, actually read the bill? I bet if we gave them a test on the contents, they would all fail!

Rep Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who is an assistant Tuscaloosa city attorney, raised questions in the House Judiciary Committee about the stringent reporting requirements.

In previous years, sex offender legislation, particularly limitations on where offenders can live, prompted concerns from legislators.
- Yes, every single year, they come up with new ways to punish ex-offenders more and more.

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, was a House Judiciary Committee member from 2006-10.

She said if the state continues to lengthen the distance between a sex offender's address and community parks, day care facilities or schools, pretty soon there won't be anywhere left for offenders to live.
- Again, I think this is one of the ultimate goals, forced exile.

Jess Brown, political scientist professor at Athens State University, said the thought of sex offenses brings out strong emotions in the public, which often applauds tougher offender restrictions.
- So, we pass laws based on emotions and not facts. God help us all!

Politicians who pass the laws can go home and tell voters they are tough on crime, and few people will voice objections even if they believe the laws may be a mistake, he said.

There is a belief in America, especially in Alabama, that you can solve a problem with tough-on-crime laws,” Brown said. “But if you continue to have harsh punishment without the likelihood of effective enforcement, then compliance goes down.”
- Well, when you don't learn from history, this is your mentality. The facts don't back that up though. The "tough on crime" legislation doesn't stop murderers from murdering, rapists from raping, or drug dealers from dealing, so why do you think this will work? You need to get off Fantasy Island.

Politics are always a part of the picture with punitive legislation, including three-strikes-and-you're-out laws that also crowd prisons with people who return on technicalities, he said.
- Exactly, politicians exploit people's fear and sex offenders to pass more and more laws every single year, just so they can "look tough on crime," while doing nothing, and you will continue to vote for them, and they continue to get a large paycheck.

No prosecutor or politician is going to stand up and say we made a mistake with this law,” Brown said. “He doesn't want his opponents to use that against him in the next election.”
- Well, if they were defending the constitution, and the oath they took, and knew the facts instead of lies and myths, then they could use that to their advantage, but, nobody has the balls to stand for the constitution and people's rights, like said above, it could ruin their careers, and then they'd not be getting that large paycheck, so they continue to exploit sex offenders, based on fear and emotions instead of the facts, that's politics, and why I hate politics!