The highly televised abduction and brutal murder of two Florida girls by registered sex offenders has triggered a flurry of legislation at the local level. Prompted by fear and misinformation, cities and counties are passing draconian laws that essentially bar sex offenders from their jurisdictions. Unfortunately, most of these local laws take efforts to protect children to an extreme and ultimately create a false sense of security that may actually increase the chance of recidivism among paroled sex offenders.
These laws generally aim to bar sex offenders from living, working or – in extreme cases – even being within 2,500 feet of a schools, day care centers, parks and school bus stops. While it is understandable that parents and officials want to keep registered sex offenders far from children, 2,500 feet is almost half a mile. The bus stop restriction would bar offenders from living or even traveling through almost all populated areas. The fact that these laws effectively drive sex offenders from cities doesn’t bother a number of people, but it has attracted the attention of some well-informed groups: forensic psychologists, victim advocates, law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The NCMEC is not a group that seems likely to band together to fight for sex offenders’ rights. In reality, while it opposes these new local ordinances, it is not advocating for sex offenders; the organization is attempting to secure better public policy by fighting fear with fact. Experts from these groups believe that these local laws will drive sex offenders away from important sources of stability – continuing treatment, family and jobs – that help to combat recidivism. Furthermore, researchers on sexual violence worry that sex offenders will become more difficult to track when they are forced to move from community to community. In addition, because research has shown sex offenders do not normally choose their victims from areas where they live or work, children’s advocates fear these ordinances will create a false sense of security.
The pervasive fear of sex offenders and the “not in my backyard” mentality behind laws that push sex offenders from city to city should be seen for what they are: signs that citizens do not trust the judicial system. In theory, if someone commits a criminal act, receives an appropriate sentence and is released after serving time, he has paid his debt to society and should be able to re-enter public life. However, sex offenders are not treated as full members of society after serving time – federal law requires registry in a database, while local laws often force sex offenders to jump through hoops before they are allowed to move in. If the general population feels threatened by paroled or released sex offenders, the answer is a change in the way sexual offenses are dealt with in the judicial system, not local laws that force them into the unpopulated countryside. The justice system should ensure that sex offenders receive treatment within prisons so that when they are released, there is less rational reason to fear recidivism.
Child safety is a paramount concern for all parents and communities. Yet, absurd local ordinances that bar sex offenders from traveling within half a mile of bus stops do little to actually keep children safe. True solutions to recidivism lie within the state and federal judicial and correctional systems, not local city halls.