|Julia Tuttle Causeway|
By NEIL OSTERWEIL
BOSTON – Laws intended to keep convicted sex offenders far away from schools, playgrounds, shopping malls, and other places where children might gather don’t appear to work or aren’t being vigorously enforced in parts of the United States. And when the laws are adhered to, they often keep offenders far away from needed psychiatric services, job prospects, and social support, researchers said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
In Buffalo, N.Y., sex offenders are legally barred from living in all but 6.5% of the city’s total area, but more than 90% of sex offenders in the county live within that city’s limits, said Dr. Jacqueline A. Berenson, a forensic psychiatrist in private practice in New York City.
"One of the conclusions that has come from a number of studies is that the legislation is not only not helping with the recidivism rate of sex offenders in the community, but may actually be worsening recidivism rates, and that the collateral damage being done by this legislation nationally is self-defeating," she said.
Residence restriction laws vary considerably in their components (who is an offender, where can’t they live, how far they must stay away), and in terms of complexity and ambiguity of the statutes, which vary in their definition, measurement of distance, and enforcement, Dr. Berenson noted.
For example, in Erie County, N.Y., alone, rules vary from one municipality to the next. In the city of Lackawanna, level 3 registered sex offenders or any registered offender over the age of 17 convicted of an offense (including statutory rape) upon a child age 16 or under is forbidden from living within 2,000 feet of any school, park, playground, athletic field, or day care center. In contrast, the Town of Evans and the Village of Sloan set a 1,500-foot boundary, with Sloan bylaws adding teen/community centers, dance halls, and skating rinks to exclusion zones. The law does not specify what constitutes a "teen/community center" or "dance hall."
Such laws, Dr. Berenson said, often force offenders to live in more rural areas where they might not have community or social support or access to services, or to violate the laws by living within an off-limits area and risk parole violation, rearrest, and imprisonment.
"Do they understand what the legislation means? Do their parole officers understand? And if they don’t understand, does that make them not culpable if they’re living in a restricted area? And the answer to that is ‘No’; if they’re living in a restricted area, the potential for being arrested and charged with a felony is real," she said.
A researcher who also studies housing issues of sex offenders, Andrew J. Harris, Ph.D., from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, cited the example of Miami-Dade County, Fla., where sex offenders were living in a makeshift encampment under a bridge on the Julia Tuttle Causeway, the only place they could find that didn’t violate that county’s residence restrictions. Some offenders even received state-issued IDs listing the causeway as their place of residence.
Dr. Berenson reported results of a study that she and Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum of Columbia University, New York, conducted on the effect of residence statutes on the availability of residences for registered sex offenders in both urban and rural areas of Erie and Schenectady counties in New York.
They collected parcel data from the New York State Department of Cyber Security and the Schenectady County geographic information services department, and created overlay maps showing restricted locations according to statute, and residential locations of registered sex offenders.
Although they expected to find that most offenders were living in rural areas, where schools and playgrounds are more widely dispersed, they found that the opposite was true. In Erie County, 90% of offenders were living in restricted areas, and nearly all were within the city limits of Buffalo (91% of the city dwellers were living in restricted areas of Buffalo). Similarly, 90% of offenders in Schenectady County were living in restricted zones, and 100% of offenders living within the City of Schenectady were doing so afoul of the law.
In both counties, only a small percentage of rural residences were in restricted zones, whereas the large majority of multiple family residences or apartments, more commonly found in urban areas, were not legally available to offenders.
The implications of these findings, Dr. Berenson said, are that there may be inadequate resources or an unwillingness on the part of law enforcement agencies to follow the restriction statutes. She noted that courts have overturned sex offender residency laws in eight New York counties, and that the Washington County board of supervisors recently voted to repeal that county’s law.
"Policy makers should be pulling out the [geographic information services] software themselves and asking, ‘What is the actual impact of this legislation? What’s going to happen? Where are these guys going to go?’ " Dr. Harris said. "Housing is a matter of managing this inherent risk that people have for public safety and minimizing the collateral risk."
Dr. Berenson’s study was internally funded. Dr. Berenson and Dr. Harris reported that they had no relevant financial disclosures.