Sex offender ruling sparks discussion of law's real value

By Frank Eltman
Associated Press

MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — A decision by New York’s highest court striking down local laws that set boundaries on where convicted sex offenders may live has rekindled a debate over whether such laws really work to protect children.

New York’s Court of Appeals ruled unanimously last week that only the state has the power to tell offenders where they can and cannot reside, and generally only while they are on parole or supervised release. The ruling effectively struck down more than 130 local laws across the state, many of which went further than state law by imposing such restrictions on offenders for the rest of their lives.

Some lawmakers and advocates reacted by seeking to strengthen the state law, which currently bars more serious sex offenders on parole or supervised release from being within 1,000 feet of any school grounds in a parked car or public areas adjacent to schools.

“We are very concerned,” said Laura Ahearn, executive director of a Long Island group called Parents for Megan’s Law. “Because certain registrants are no less dangerous the day after they complete their supervision.”

But several experts argue such residency restrictions may not provide the protection for children the laws envision.

“The truth is these laws are very popular with politicians and the public and sound good in theory,” said Jill S. Levenson, who teaches social work at Barry University in Florida. “There have been numerous studies that show there is no relationship between where a sex offender lives and the likelihood to re-offend.”

Levenson added that forcing offenders to scour an area for housing opens them to the possibility of re-offending.

“The best predictor of a successful re-entry into society is stable housing, employment and a social support system,” Levenson said. “Policies that disrupt those factors actually increase the likelihood of resuming a life of crime.”

Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers in Beaverton, Oregon, said it is also important for laws to distinguish between adult and juvenile offenders. She said juvenile offenders are less likely to offend again.

“In some cases, states are putting a lot of resources aimed at those who are the least likely to repeat this kind of offense,” she said. “We forget that this is a very complicated issue and there is no silver bullet. ... We can’t act like everybody is high risk and can’t clump everybody into the same category.”

Her organization notes at least 30 states and hundreds of cities have enacted some kind of residency restrictions for sex offenders in the past two decades, but as in the case of the New York court ruling last week, some have since been overturned on constitutional grounds.

Bill O’Leary, a social worker who treats sex offenders on Long Island, said stigmatizing sex offenders and creating an atmosphere of fear over so-called “stranger danger,” in which children are accosted by molesters on the street, is not helpful.

“We all grew up hearing about ‘stranger danger,’ but in most cases children are abused by someone they know, not by strangers,” he said.

A Long Island man convicted of second-degree rape in 1994 said he has been homeless for several months and has found it difficult to find housing because of restrictions on where he can live. The man declined to be publicly identified because of the stigma of his rape conviction; he is currently receiving temporary housing through a local social services agency.

“It’s a little difficult because I am being shipped around to temporary shelters week to week,” said the man, who is required to notify police nightly about his whereabouts because he doesn’t have a permanent address where he can be monitored. “I don’t blame people for feeling that way,” he said of the stigma attached to his crime. “It’s my own fault that I put myself in this situation, but I don’t think I’m a waste and I know I could do better.”

New York’s appeals court was ruling specifically on a 2006 Nassau County law that applied the 1,000-foot school rule to all registered sex offenders.

Michael Diack was the only person ever charged with violating the Nassau County law. After being convicted in 2001 of possessing child pornography, he spent after 22 months in prison and a year on parole. When Diack moved to an apartment within 500 feet of two schools after completing parole, he was charged with violating the local residency law.

A trial judge dismissed the charge, saying the local law was pre-empted by the state law. A midlevel court reinstated the complaint. The Court of Appeals on Tuesday dismissed it again.

“There’s a lot of other people all over the state that are subjected to these laws and now they’re all invalid,” said attorney Kathy Manley, who represented Diack. “Most of these people really don’t pose a risk.”

However, the state law requires some 38,000 convicted sex offenders to keep their addresses and photographs updated in a registry, which is publicly available, about those convicted of more serious crimes. It’s searchable by name, zip code or county. More than 300 offenders considered most likely to re-offend have been locked in psychiatric facilities after their prison sentences ended, with another 100 high-risk offenders getting intensive treatment and supervision in communities.