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Have Sex Offender Registry Laws Made Communities Less Safe?

The homeless sex offenders of Miami Beach provide one answer…

As far as contemporary society has come in learning how to treat many on the margins of society as full-fledged citizens and respect their dignity, there are still certain groups whom many across America still don’t know how to treat. Criminals often receive little to no sympathy from society at large, and, of that group, sex offenders are easily the most criticized and even abused. Of course, the dilemma remains: what should the authorities and society in general do with sex offenders?

A recent article profiled a group of fourteen men, all convicted sex offenders, who have been forced into homelessness by the restrictions placed on them during probation. All fourteen live under a highway overpass in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Though each has a unique story, what they have in common is an inability to assimilate into society – not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t.

Florida, like most other states, has a sex offender registry that was sanctioned by the federal government in 1994 when Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. The government withheld federal money earmarked for criminal justice if any states did not comply; for most, there was no choice.

After the act was passed, Florida instated a law banning sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, public-school-bus stops, or other places where children congregate. In 2005, another sexual predator episode caused communities to enhance restrictions: Miami Beach upped the perimeter of the no-living zone to 2,500 feet, easing the fears of many parents of young children and other morally outraged citizens.

However, the increase in the area of the no-living zones has had a very profound consequence on the convicted sex offenders: they have no place to live. In some neighborhoods, there is no place outside the required perimeter, and in other neighborhoods, the areas outside the perimeters are so small as to make finding apartments or homes virtually impossible.

And so, the fourteen convicted sex offenders in the Miami Beach community are forced to live under a freeway. And authorities aren’t too keen on the idea: they have ordered the men to move, although where they will go is unknown.

But beyond that, the well-intentioned authorities of Miami Beach have taken their mission so far that they actually make themselves less safe. With addresses of sex offenders in a centralized registry, inquiring citizens will at least know where a convicted sex offender lives and be able to plan their children’s activities accordingly. Homeless sex offenders, however, are much more difficult to track, and will not show up in a registry when a family wishes to inquire about their neighborhood.

In fact, many who are pushed out of communities will simply leave, showing up in a new city where they can dodge their previous identity. The Style article points out that, nationally, the number of sex offenders who have “disappeared” in the eyes of the police has tripled; in Miami Beach, the number is has multiplied an astonishing ten times. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, at least 100,000 sex offenders have virtually disappeared.

While the restrictions placed on where sex offenders may live may have been effective over the past fifteen years in lowering attacks on children and allowing authorities to maintain better control over paroled offenders, the unintended consequences of too harsh living restrictions have undermined to some degree the success in this area. It’s certainly a fact worth revisiting as policymakers keep fine-tuning state laws on sex crimes.

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