After two decades of imposing increasingly harsh residence restrictions on people convicted of sex offenses, several key states are rejecting blanket restrictions.
Since Congress passed Megan’s Law in 1996, empowering states to create public sex offender registries, at least 30 states and hundreds of cities have enacted residence restrictions that limit where people convicted of sex offenses may legally live. These restrictions typically prevent the targeted individuals from living within 1000 to 2500 feet of schools, daycare centers, parks, and other places where children congregate, and have forced tens of thousands of people nationwide to live in motels, out of cars, under bridges, or even outside jails.
Politically popular blanket restrictions do not differentiate juvenile offenders or people convicted of offenses like public urination from people convicted of serious crimes against children. Instead, many laws impose lifetime restrictions on those least likely to pose any future risk. There is no evidence that these laws protect children, and by forcing so many people into homelessness and isolating them from their families and other supports, research shows that these policies actually increase risks to public safety.
Some state courts have begun to reign in overbroad and counterproductive residence restrictions. The California Supreme Court recently struck down blanket lifetime restrictions, ruling that a San Diego law that barred parolees from 97 percent of available housing violated the Constitution by limiting their access to housing, increasing homelessness, and depriving them of access to services like psychological counseling that are available to all parolees. The court found that blanket restrictions do not protect children and communities but instead create a greater safety risk by forcing more people into homelessness, which makes them harder to monitor.
“Blanket enforcement of the residency restrictions against these parolees has … infringed their liberty and privacy interests, however limited, while bearing no rational relationship to advancing the state’s legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators,” the unanimous court ruled. The decision requires that residence restrictions be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Earlier this year, New York’s highest court unanimously struck down more than 130 local laws that exceeded state law by imposing lifetime residence restrictions. The court ruled that only the state has the power to impose residence restrictions, and that power is limited to restricting where people live only while they are on parole or supervised release.
On August 28, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts similarly struck down a local ordinance that effectively banned people convicted of sex offenses from 95 percent of the city’s housing, ruling that cities and towns lack authority to issue residence restrictions. The unanimous decision compared blanket residence restrictions with the forcible removal of Native Americans in the 19th century and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “Except for the incarceration of persons under the criminal law and the civil commitment of mentally ill or dangerous persons, the days are long since past when whole communities of persons, such as Native Americans and Japanese-Americans, may be lawfully banished from our midst,” the court wrote.
The nation’s top prosecutor, the United States Department of Justice, agrees. In a report issued last month, the Justice Department concluded that “the evidence is fairly clear that residence restrictions are not effective” and that “[t]here is nothing to suggest this policy should be used at this time.” Specifically, it found that residence restrictions do not decrease or deter sexual recidivism or significantly decrease sex crime rates. Echoing the California Supreme Court, the Justice Department found that residence restrictions have led to increased homelessness and financial hardship for individuals and their families.
Indeed, studies have found that residence restrictions and online registries that publicize the names and addresses of people convicted of sex offenses have negative collateral consequences not only for the targeted individuals but for their children, who are forced into homelessness and subjected to bullying. One survey found that half of these children had been harassed and more than three-quarters were suffering from depression; many families had been threatened or harassed by neighbors; and 7 percent reported being assaulted or injured.
Hopefully, other state courts and policymakers will follow the trend started in California, Massachusetts, and New York, and adopt evidence-based policies that have been shown to actually enhance public safety.