Laws Restricting Where Sex Offenders Can Live Don't Accomplish Anything

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Aug. 25 2014 1:29 PM

Sex Offenders Housing Restrictions Are Pointless

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Who lives here?

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This article originally appeared in Science of Us.

On Thursday, Joseph Goldstein of the New York Times reported that “Dozens of sex offenders who have satisfied their sentences in New York State are being held in prison beyond their release dates because of a new interpretation of a state law that governs where they can live.” In short, since 2005, sex offenders in the state can't live within 1,000 feet of a school, and a February ruling from the state's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision extended that restriction to homeless shelters.

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Because the onus is on sex offenders to find approved housing before they’re released, Goldstein reported, they’ve been left with very few options, especially in densely-populated New York City, where there are schools everywhere. This has led to an uncomfortable legal limbo and sparked at least one lawsuit (so far) on behalf of an offender who is still in custody even though he was supposed to be out by now.

The unfortunate thing about this situation is that laws designed to restrict where sex offenders can live are really and truly useless, except as a means of politicians scoring easy political points by ratcheting up hysteria. There are many tricky social-scientific issues on which there are a range of opinions and some degree of debate among experts, but this isn't one of them. Among those whose job it is to figure out how to reduce the rate at which sex offenders commit crimes (as opposed to those whose job it is to get reelected, in part by hammering away at phantom threats), there is zero controversy: These laws don't work, and may actually increase sexual offenders’ recidivism rates.

Maia Christopher, head of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, sent Science of Us a policy paper her organization has prepared on this issue (it’s not yet online, but should be later this week). ATSA’s views on housing restrictions for sex offenders are completely straightforward: The group “does not support the use of residence restrictions as a feasible strategy for sex offender management” because of a lack of evidence they do any good.

The paper notes that these laws have proliferated—“[a]t least 30 states and hundreds of cities” have them—because of some basic misunderstandings about how sex crimes are committed. There’s a collective American fixation on the creepy image of a sex offender salivating just beyond the playground fence, but that’s just not how things usually work.

Rather, these crimes are generally committed by someone known to the victim—93 percent of the time when it comes to child victims, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics—and the majority take place either in the victim’s home or the home of someone they know. “Therefore,” the authors write, “policies based on ‘stranger danger’ do not adequately address the reality of sexual abuse.”

The policy paper goes on to run through some of the many studies on the subject. In Florida and Colorado, sex offenders who resided near schools or daycare centers didn’t reoffend more frequently than those who did not. In Minnesota, an analysis of 224 “sexual reoffense crimes” found that the “offender was a neighbors of the victim in only about 4 percent of the cases,” and “the authors concluded that residence restrictions would not have prevented even one re-offense.”

All the literature, in short, points to the same conclusion: restricting where sex offenders can live doesn’t appear to increase public safety one iota. It may decrease it, however, because the “unintended consequences of residence restrictions include transience, homelessness, instability, and other obstacles to community reentry.” Since “unemployment, unstable housing, and lack of support are associated with increased criminal recidivism,” and housing restrictions lead to all three, they’re a bad idea, ATSA argues.

As a social-science writer used to the hedge-y language of “This study suggests that A may cause B,” it felt weird to be exposed to a debate in which the evidence is stacked so highly on one side. So I sent emails to Karen Terry and Cynthia Calkins Mercado, both professors at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice whose primary area of expertise is sex offenders.

Would it really be accurate, I asked them, to say that there’s literally no evidence these policies are useful? “You are correct,” Terry wrote back. “To date, there is no empirical evidence that these policies reduce the rate of sexual offending.” Mercado concurred, and added that there’s “considerable evidence that these restrictions make readjustment to the community more difficult and thus may inadvertently increase risk for recidivism.” 

It should be said that these restrictions are just one part of a larger story—as Human Rights Watch, Radley Balko, and others have pointed out, U.S. laws governing sex offenses are broken in a myriad of ways. But getting rid of such housing laws would still be a step in the right direction, so it’s too bad that this is a pipe dream, at least in the short term. After all, what politician wants to stand up and say, “You know what? I think sex offenders should be able to live closer to children”?

Jesse Singal is a senior editor at NYMag.com, where he edits the social-science blog Science of Us. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.  

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