Predator protection laws come under fire
Many communities are passing or considering zoning ordinances that restrict where convicted sex offenders may reside after being released from prison. Typically, the local residency restrictions bar offenders from living — and sometimes even working — within a designated number of feet of schools, parks, libraries and other places children normally congregate. Supporters of the zoning ordinances say they protect children, while opponents say such restrictions may be going too far and are suing to overturn them.
The New Jersey State Public Defender’s Office has recently taken the case of a 76-year-old convicted offender who has been ordered to move from his home of 37 years because of its location in Franklin Township’s newly created restrictive zone. Tom Rosenthal, spokesman for the public defenders office, says the municipal ordinances are usurping the state’s authority to set uniform residency restrictions for sex offenders, and other actions should be taken. “The problem with creating a patchwork of ordinances is that you end up enacting laws of unintended consequences,” Rosenthal says. The laws uproot offenders from their homes and support systems, obstruct their ability to find and maintain gainful employment, and push them away from society, destabilizing them and increasing recidivism, he says.
While the challenge to the Franklin Township ordinance is still in the pretrial phase, in December, a State Superior Court judge struck down a Lower Township, N.J., ordinance deeming it punitive and in direct conflict with state law. Megan’s Law, the state law that requires sex offenders to register with local police, prohibits anyone from using a sex offender’s status to deny housing and accommodations. “Our intent from day one was never to be punitive and [was] always solely to protect our children,” says Mayor Walt Craig.
While disappointed with the judge’s decision, Craig says the cost of continued litigation makes it unlikely the township will appeal. “Certainly our local police, schools and recreation people will be more diligent [in observing sex offenders to protect children from them],” he says.
In December, the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice and Policy Center filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Reading, Ohio, ordinance — which prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, libraries, parks and daycares — saying it violates the U.S. Constitution’s rules barring retroactive punishment. If the law is overturned, there could be huge ramifications, says the center’s Director David Singleton. “[A win in federal court] would start to chip away at the idea that the state can do whatever it wants to regulate sex offenders,” he says.
Barnstable, Mass., has taken a novel approach to restrict sex offenders in its community. Its “Child Safety Information and Awareness Ordinance” passed in October 2006 requires that information be posted on the city’s Web site about safety issues of locations frequented by children. It also prohibits certain high-risk sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of those locations unless they live with a relative. The broad-based effort is intended to add a layer of protection against a legal challenge because it does not single out sex offenders. “It’s not singular in its effort by any stretch,” says Councilman James Crocker.
Because of the zoning laws, however, probation officers and others who manage released sex offenders are finding it increasingly difficult to successfully re-integrate sexual offenders into the community, says Charles Onley, a research associate for the Silver Spring, Md.-based Center for Sex Offender Management, a U.S. Department of Justice program. Some offenders are likely to hide their true locations. “For sex offender registries and community notification to [provide protection], sex offenders must have addresses,” Onley says.
— Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.