Bill repeals local codes that banish sex offenders

House members expressed strong support the other day for a bill conceived and written by Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform. HB 263 would stop towns from banning registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet or more of a school, park, daycare center or other place where children congregate. Courts have found such ordinances unconstitutional in both Franklin and Dover because they violate fundamental property rights. Most other towns have gotten rid of these codes in order to avoid expensive lawsuits. Only tiny Holderness has one that it still plans to keep it. That makes the community ripe for a lawsuit.  Stay tuned.

An identical bill has sailed through the House three times since 2010,  only to die in the Senate. The Department of Safety strongly supported HB 263 at its recent House hearing because these restrictions force registrants underground or drive them out of town.  In our opinion, they also spur vigilantism, and they’re based on dangerous myths. Learn more from my House testimony below.

Residency restrictions on sex offenders harm kids

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR

HB 263 to ban towns from imposing residency restrictions on sex offenders would stop a dubious practice that has failed in every state that has tried it. One of the worst practices in criminology is a residency restriction against sex offenders like the Dover ordinance found unconstitutional in 2009 and the copycat Franklin ordinance struck down later. In the first year they both drove half the registrants elsewhere.

The case against this practice

The goal of these policies is to protect children from mean strangers with high recidivism rates and many victims. These mythical predators stalk children near playgrounds to kidnap and rape them. People who fit that stereotype are rare, but the firestorm afterward drives state after state to pass knee jerk draconian laws with many i unintended consequences.

As in Iowa, Georgia, Florida, California and other states that have tried these restrictions, they would make hundreds of New Hampshire sex offenders homeless if imposed statewide. They would also break up their families, and isolate them without public transportation far from jobs, treatment, and social supports. Iowa lost track of 42 percent of its sex offenders under a 2,000-foot residency restriction law. The homeless rate among paroled sex offenders in California soared 800 percent in the first year of residency restrictions. Georgia is driving its sex offenders literally into the woods. Florida is banishing them from large coastal sections of the state into the Everglades and squalid camps below highway bridges.

Prosecutors and victims’ advocates around the country have begun opposing these laws because they paradoxically endanger children. Research shows that paroled sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rates of all criminals. And they pose the least threat of re-offense if they have jobs, loved ones and a stake in the community.

The research on residency restrictions is clear

A 2007 report by the Minnesota Department of Corrections tracked 224 sex offenders released from prison between 1999 and 2002 who committed new sex crimes prior to 2006. The first contact between victim and offender never happened near a school, daycare center or other place where children congregate. The report concluded, “Not one of the 224 sex offenses would likely have been deterred by a residency restrictions law.” The study warned that these laws isolate offenders in rural areas with little social and treatment support, with poor transportation access and with few job opportunities. The resulting increase in homelessness makes them harder to track and supervise. “Rather than lowering sexual recidivism,” the report said, “housing restrictions may work against this goal by fostering conditions that exacerbate sex offenders’ reintegration into society.”

Surveys of sex offenders confirm that these laws do vast harm to them and their families. The research also shows that children and teenagers, and not dirty old men in the bushes, commit up to half the sex crimes against children. In other words, half the so-called predators addressed by housing limits already attend the places a town ordinance would safeguard.

Ninety percent of sex crimes are committed by people who are not listed on any registry. Most crimes against kids are committed by peers, by family members or by teachers, coaches, priests, and other friends of the family. In fact, the arrest rate for new sex crimes by paroled sex offenders in state after state ranges between 1 and 5 percent in the first three years after prison.

A 2005 survey of 135 Florida sex offenders by researchers Jill Levenson and Leo Cotter found that residency restrictions had forced 22 percent of this group to move out of homes they already owned. 25 percent were unable to return to their homes after release from prison. Respondents agreed in varying ways with these additional statements about the impact of residency restrictions on their lives:

  • I cannot live with supportive family members. 30%
  • I find it difficult to find affordable housing. 57%
  • I have suffered financially. 48%
  • I have suffered emotionally. 60%
  • I have had to move out of an apartment that I rented. 28%

Superb crime bill likely to get adversely amended

We understand the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to gut the best feature of a good criminal justice bill, SB 53. As drafted, it adds a woman ex-offender to the blue ribbon Interbranch Council on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.  The New Hampshire Judicial Council and the Department of Corrections opposed letting someone with a criminal record serve in such a prestigious role. We respectfully suggest they should know better. But if they are right, then our prisons and jailers have utterly failed inmates, their families. the public and taxpayers. Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform will try to rescue the finest aspect of SB 53 when it reaches the House. It will be an uphill fight. Learn more in my testimony to senators below.

Testimony for SB 53 to expand the membership  of the Interbranch Crime Council

Please consider this my testimony in support of SB 53. I helped to start Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform in 2011 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit agency that advocates for smarter crime laws and the rights of prisoners. We have since grown to 300 dues paying members, many of them inmates and their loved ones. I also chair the Episcopal Prison Concerns Committee which worked behind the scenes this fall to help create SB 53.

In addition, I helped to convene the Committee Against Mass Incarceration of the NH Council of Churches, which supports SB 53 without any amendments.

Some day these three groups will speak about crime and justice in a mobilized way for hundreds of churches, 30,000 New Hampshire citizens with criminal records, and twice as many of their family members. I understand from those in the attendance this morning that you will probably delete from SB 53 the clause that adds a former woman prisoner to the Interbranch Council on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Our several coalitions will work hard to amend the bill in the House to add a former offender, either a man or a woman, to the Interbranch Council.

There are many people qualified for that important role. One of our former CCJR board members, now living in Connecticut, spent three years at the Goffstown prison for women and spoke for us to civic groups about living in a cell when you have a college degree. Two of our current board members bunked together for a year at the Men’s Prison in Concord. One is a former doctor who authored several well argued Supreme Court appeals. The other has a Ph.D in counseling. Folks like them have the special knowledge and skill to keep conversations about crime policy real.

The presence of an ex-convict serving on a crime board would send a statement that New Hampshire can forgive and respect people who have served some pretty draconian punishments for their mistakes. Some of them will testify at the House public hearing on SB 53. The representatives will see that these good people are experts on crime, the law and atonement. You may read what I’m talking about on the CCJR website at Go to the link called the “Land of Oz.”

When the bill comes back to you in May, please reconsider it with an open mind. Ex-offenders have much to offer this wonderful state. At least one of them belongs on a blue ribbon crime council if we are ever going to end the bipartisan folly of mass incarceration.

By Chris Dornin, founder, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform