Let them live with the other large reptiles: the failure of residency restrictions

America has a lot of harsh laws against sex offenders that shame and banish this unpopular group. Miami sends them to live in the swamps with the poisonous snakes and boa constrictors. Georgia bars them from living or working within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop. Pretty much the whole state is off limits for employment or domicile. California bans them from living in just about any of the cities. Those laws are under serious legal challenge, and the Georgia bus stop code is on hold pending the outcome of a marathon lawsuit that started six years ago. But slightly less draconian limits remain in force.

Those life-time punishments pale next to maybe the worst sex offender legislation of all time.  Rep. Fran Wendelboe of New Hampshire sponsored HB 1647 two years ago to ban a registered sex offender from living within 25 miles of their victim or from any relative or in-law of the victim. A violation would have been a class B felony earning another three and half to seven years in prison, if not more, counting the aggravating factor of being a recidivist.

The Raymond Guay bill

Her legislation aimed at a single convicted child murderer on federal parole named Raymond Guay, who had settled in Wendelboe’s district after being run out of half a dozen towns. Guay had escaped from prison and he had stabbed another inmate on the inside, so he was clearly a dangerous dude. He was not listed on the public sex offender registry because he was never charged with a sex crime. Every time the neighbors found out they were living near this man, they caused an uproar in the media and pressured his landlord, the governor, selectmen and federal authorities to send him packing.

To their credit, members of the House Criminal Justice Committee voted HB 1647 inexpedient to legislate by17-0. The sponsor was undaunted. She took the bill off the consent calendar a week later and gave a fist thumping speech against all sex offenders, even threatening to campaign in the general election against any lawmaker heartless enough to vote no. She read a litany of places where Guay had stayed before ending up in Ashland: Hollis, Nashua, Washington, Concord, Manchester and Chichester.

“This clearly was a sex crime,” she maintained. “The prosecutor would have asked for the death penalty if we had had one. How in the world did he get out of prison?”

HB  1647 contained no grandfathering clause to exempt sex offenders already living in the wrong place. Many, if not most, sex offenders would have faced eviction, with little chance of finding somewhere else to live.

Rep. Shannon Chandley led the floor opposition to HB 1647, reading her own litany of close and distant relatives a sex offender would have to identify, locate and avoid: mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, husband, wife, grandfather, grandmother, grandson, granddaughter, great-grandchildren, step-parent, step-children, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece and former spouse, not to mention in-laws.

“The residency restriction is unenforceable,” Chandley warned.

The scary part is not that Guay made parole. It turns out he had become a Christian in prison, maybe an authentic one. I attend a small men’s fellowship a couple times a month, and one day we got a surprise. One of our members brought Raymond Guay. I can’t tell you his conversion was real, because nobody knows another person’s heart. But he prayed like a Baptist elder, and he had major parts of scripture memorized from attending jailhouse Bible studies for a decade. The woman who brought him to the Lord also recruited me to be a prison volunteer. David Pinkney, the pastor who hosted Guay in Chichester, was getting death threats. Guay has been crime free on the outside now for four years despite all the attention he draws.

Pinkney testified against Wendelboe’s bill. “I would welcome Raymond Guay into my home again,” he told lawmakers.

Federal law wisely makes such inmates spend at least 15 percent of their sentence under close supervision, with badly needed help toward re-entry. The strange part is that 105 lawmakers voted to drive out not just Guay, but a huge class of labeled, demonized and unwanted American citizens, just send them off to any other state as if they were Japanese Americans living on the West Coast in 1941 or literate members of the Cherokee Nation prior to the Trail of Tears.

Wendelboe had designs on higher office, state senator..  She lost in the Republican primary, but was right about playing the sex offender card. A month before the general election, a convicted sex offender on parole got charged with inappropriately touching a woman. Under a new and progressive justice reinvestment law, the accused man could only return to prison for 90 days on a parole violation.

Demagoguery works

A barrage of Willie Horton-style attack ads, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth funded by Americans for Prosperity, said the Democratic incumbent governor had signed a the law that let dangerous felons out early. The 90 days expired after the election, and the defendant transferred straight to the county jail awaiting trial on his new charge. One of their strategists behind the media campaign later told me the attack ads had tremendous traction. The new legislature gutted the law, which had reduced the prison population by several hundred inmates in a single year. Those savings on prison costs balanced the budget instead funding badly needed community services for ex-offenders as planned. The prison population is climbing again. So is recidivism.

Florida popularized residency restrictions. Powerful Florida lobbyist Ron Book pushed this novel zoning code through the state legislature with little opposition after he learned his grade-school daughter had been raped repeatedly, threatened, and physically abused by her live-in nanny for several years. The resulting statute, based on one horrific case, had nothing to do with the crime against his child.

The threat against the Book family had come from within. Book apparently missed the early signs something was wrong with his daughter because he was too trusting. Or he believed the mean stranger myth of sex offending that holds such power in the public consciousness.

The goal of these policies is to protect children from predatory strangers with many victims and high recidivism rates who stalk children near playgrounds to kidnap and rape them. People who fit that stereotype are rare, but they get all the publicity. 

We know from the experiences of Iowa, Georgia, Florida, California, and other states that these policies make thousands of public registrants homeless, break up their families, stop them from registering and isolate them without public transportation far from jobs, treatment, medical care, and social supports. Iowa lost track of 42% of its sex offenders under a 2,000-foot residency restriction law. The homeless rate among paroled sex offenders in California soared 800% 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 except murderers. 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

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 crimes against children. In other words, half the so-called predators addressed by housing limits already attend the places the town ordinances would safeguard.

90% 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% of this group to move out of homes they already owned. 25% were unable to return to their homes after release from prison. Respondents agreed in varying degrees 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%

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.”

Child advocates and prosecutors oppose these ordinances

The Iowa County Attorneys Association issued a position paper in 2006 opposing a 2,000-foot residency restriction against sex offenders from places where kids congregate. The prosecutors said, “Law enforcement has observed that the residency restriction is causing offenders to become homeless, to change residences without notifying authorities of their new locations, to register false addresses, or to simply disappear. If they do not register, law enforcement and the public do not know where they are living. The resulting damage to the reliability of the sex offender registry does not serve the interests of public safety.”

A position paper by the Iowa Association of Social Workers says that concentrations of Iowa sex offenders are living in motels, trailer parks, interstate highway rest stops, parking lots, and tents. The site notes many other unintended consequences:

Families of offenders who attempt to remain together are effectively subjected to the same restrictions, meaning that they too are forced to move, and may have to leave jobs, de-link from community ties, and remove their children from schools and friends.

Physically- or mentally-impaired offenders who depend on family for regular support are prevented from living with those on whom they rely for help.

Threat of family disruption may leave victims of familial sexual abuse reluctant to report the abuse to authorities, thereby undermining the intention of the law.

Threat of being subjected to the residency restriction has led to a significant decrease in the number of offenders who, as part of the trial process, disclose their sexual offenses; consequently, fewer offenders are being held accountable for their actions.

Loss of residential stability, disconnection from family, and social isolation run contrary to the “best practice” approaches for treatment of sex offenders and thus put offenders at higher risk of re-offense.

No distinction is made between those offenders who pose a real risk to children and those who pose no known threat.

Chris Dornin is a retired State House reporter and the founder of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform. He was a recent guest talking about sex offender issues on Laura Knoy's “The Exchange” show on NH Public Radio. You can listen to the episode at this link: http://www.nhpr.org/post/do-sex-offender-laws-keep-us-safe.