In 2009, a homeless encampment under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami attained international infamy when it was discovered that all the residents were registered sex offenders. Just last year, another sex offender encampment emerged in the same county, this time hosting hundreds of people on a roadside outside Hialeah. These camps attracted dramatic concentrations of criminals as a result of stringent municipal residency restrictions which bar registered sex offenders from living within a specified radius of protected locations, such as schools and parks. Known as “buffer zones,” these laws aim to reduce rates of reoffense by restricting offenders’ access to areas frequented by minors.
Florida is not the only place that faces this issue—localities across the country have established buffer zones, usually ranging from 500 to 2500 feet. The size of these buffer zones has ballooned in recent decades through something of a municipal arms race to establish the most restrictive ordinances. When one city increases the distances of its buffer zones, neighboring locales are forced to respond by raising theirs by an equal or greater degree to prevent displaced sex offenders from moving in en masse. In effect, these laws can exclude sex offenders from entire regions. For example, 93% of residential properties in Newark, New Jersey fall within 2500 feet of a school. These restrictions push offenders into homelessness and result in encampments such as those in Julia Tuttle and Hialeah. In the interests of the communities that sex offenders enter upon release from prison, the federal government should issue guidance for states to scale back the scope of local buffer zones.
Buffer zones are not the only barrier to housing that registered offenders face. “Lifetime” registered offenders legally cannot receive federally funded housing assistance. Not only does this restriction keep homeless offenders in poverty, it also affects the offender’s family members who face a painful choice: enter homelessness together or split up. In addition to coordinating a reduction in buffer zones, the Department of Housing and Urban Development should remove this affordable housing ban.
Importantly, these proposals would still allow landlords and managers of affordable housing complexes to reject offenders on the basis of personal discretion. This devolves authority to the actors best-positioned to protect current tenants. For example, the manager of a subsidized housing unit could reject the application of a registered offender to benefit the single mom and her child who live upstairs. The National Housing Law Project reported last year that landlords often act more harshly than the law demands by issuing a blanket rejection to all previously convicted applicants—regardless of current registration status.
Compounding the issue, the stigma surrounding sex offender status often inhibits registered offenders from finding employment after release from prison, which increases dependence on affordable housing. Buffer zones disproportionately impact poor offenders because they have the most dramatic effects in densely populated urban areas where most affordable housing units are often located. While registered offenders with sufficient income can relocate to less densely populated regions, this option is unavailable to many poor offenders. For this reason, law enforcement transported many of the residents of the Florida encampments directly to these locations upon release from prison.
It is not clear that buffer zones, though well-intentioned, protect the welfare of the children they aspire to benefit. Firstly, a significant number of sex offenders subject to these laws are not arrested on charges related to minors. Furthermore, despite sensationalized media portrayals to the contrary, the vast majority (93 percent) of children who experience sexual abuse are the victims not of strangers, but of familiar friends or family members. Buffer zones offer little solvency in these far more common situations. Buffer zones also do not prevent sex offenders from living in proximity to minors or traveling to distant neighborhoods where they wouldn’t be recognized.
Housing restrictions actually make reoffense more likely. One major way in which this occurs is through increase in personal instability. Without the prospect of integration into a community, sex offenders lose an important incentive for reform. Prison starts to look not-so-bad compared to life in a tent under a Miami causeway, lowering the deterrence force of prison time. This is why Monica Williams, author of “The Sex Offender Housing Dilemma,” writes, “Far from ensuring public safety, residence restrictions can make it more difficult for sex offenders to reintegrate into society, which may in turn increase the likelihood of reoffending.”
In the case of offenders at high risk of reoffense, denying housing exposes homeless women to the threat of sexual violence. The National Online Research Center on Violence Against Women reports, homeless women “are particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of interpersonal victimization, including sexual and physical assault at the hands of strangers.” Greater housing stability for offenders would mitigate this problem.
The sex offender registry is also not designed to take homelessness into account. Because national law requires that registered offenders notify the authorities within three days of a change of address and laws can mandate frequent meetings with authorities, offenders experiencing housing instability are more likely to be in noncompliance with their registry requirements. Incarcerating those who fail to comply can thus waste state resources on otherwise law-abiding citizens. Returning these registered offenders to prison is not only worse for the state’s bottom line, but also for the welfare of the prisoner because prison gangs traditionally target sex offenders for violent treatment. This is especially a concern at high security federal prisons, so much so that the Federal Bureau of Prisons “recognizes sex offenders as a vulnerable population within a prison setting.”
Finding data to explicitly confirm the relationship between homelessness and reoffense proves challenging, but in 2006 the Washington Institute for Public Policy reported that recidivism rates were 50 percent higher for sex offenders who had failed to meet registration requirements. Although the exact causal mechanism behind this data remains unclear, analysis of homelessness as a risk factor potentially holds some explanatory weight. The whole point of a sex offender registry is to allow community members and law enforcement to surveil the offender, but this check against reoffense disappears when offenders go underground.
Insofar as no politician feels an incentive to advocate for greater leniency for some of the most repulsive members of our society, don’t expect to see a national reduction in buffer zones or legalization of affordable housing for registered sex offenders any time soon. However, there is a recent precedent for states negotiating down buffer zones among their cities because states are not subject to the same inter-municipality competitive forces that inflated these buffer zones to begin with. In 2006, for example, Washington State replaced all local zones with a statewide 880-foot one. The federal government should issue guidelines to facilitate this deescalation of buffer zones and enforce them through threats to cut grant funding, as it does to ensure compliance with national registry requirements.
Sex offenders include some of the most repulsive members of our society, but sentencing them to a lifetime of being kicked from prison to the street and back again is not only cruel to them, it also unduly punishes their families, exacerbates sexual violence, and strains the communities that pick up the tab for tracking and incarceration.
Photo: “Real Estate“