Testimony for HB 1153 to stop towns from limiting where people convicted of sex crimes can live.

Residency restrictions against sex offenders are the worst practice in sex offender management. The residency codes in Franklin and Dover drove half the public registrants underground or out of town before lower courts abolished this unconstitutional banishment practice. That exodus of public registrants forced surrounding towns to adopt their own residency restrictions in a climate of fear created by all that ordinance writing.  photo sex-offender.jpg

The case against this practice

The presumed goal of such zoning 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 they get all the publicity.  As in Iowa, Georgia, Florida, California and other states that have tried these restrictions, they would make many New Hampshire sex offenders homeless, 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 750 percent in the first year of residency restrictions. Georgia is driving its sex offenders literally into the woods. Florida is banishing them from large sections of the state into the Everglades and squalid camps under 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.

Richard Jennings: a case study

Richard Jennings, the sex offender whose lawsuit struck down the Dover ordinance, paid dearly for his victory. He had already signed a Dover lease with his fiance when they learned it was too near a park. Jennings registered with the State Police as living with his mother in Barrington so he would comply with the Dover rules. But he actually lived with his fiancé in Dover. The authorities found out when he challenged the sex offender ordinance and busted him for failing to register properly. He served another four months in jail for it.

The research: residency restrictions are dangerous

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 t photo sex-offenders-abc112.jpgo 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% 

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.”

The Iowa County Attorneys Association issued a position paper in 2006 opposing an existing 2,000 foot residency restriction against sex offenders from places where kids congregate. Among many criticisms, the prosecutors said, “Law enforcement has observed that the residency restric photo sex-offender-halloween-460x307.jpgtion 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 said residency restrictions had forced concentrations of Iowa sex offenders to live in motels, trailer parks, interstate highway rest stops, parking lots and tents. The social workers noted many other 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. 

By Chris Dornin, co-founder, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform

Concord Monitor Editorial:

Sex offender housing restrictions do more harm than good - Chris Dornin

Monday, March 31, 2014, Published in print: Tuesday, April 1, 2014

(Note that the 2016 legislation against residency restrictions is identical to the 2014 bill. CCJR)

Of all the constituents that politicians want to help out, sex offenders probably rank at the very bottom of the list. But the New Hampshire Senate should summon the courage to do just that. By helping sex offenders, as strange as it sounds, the Senate will end up making life safer for everyone else.

At issue is legislation that would ban cities and towns from placing broad restrictions on where sex offenders may live. Several communities have attempted such restrictions, and lower-court judges have already struck down two as unconstitutional: one in Franklin and one in Dover. In both cities, local officials wanted to keep convicted sex offenders from living too close to places where children regularly gather: schools, day care centers and playgrounds. Several other communities still have such ordinances on the books, among them Tilton, Sanbornton, Northfield and Boscawen.

The impulse to keep sex offenders away from kids via zoning is completely understandable. But there is strong reason to resist. And the photo a-1.jpgre is strong reason to set such policy at the state level, rather than leaving it to individual communities.

A growing body of evidence – gathered not just by civil liberties lawyers, but from law enforcement officers, public officials and child advocacy groups – suggests that residency restrictions are placebo pills at best and counterproductive at worst. Such ordinances give communities a false sense of security while driving sex offenders underground or into rural areas where they can’t access the services that give them the best chance at rehabilitation.

An Iowa study, for instance, showed that sexual-abuse convictions had remained steady since statewide residency restrictions went into effect five years earlier but that the number of sex offenders failing to register their addresses with local police departments, as the law required, had more than doubled.

And a study in the journal Federal Probation draws a clear link between housing instability – an obvious consequence of residency ordinances – and criminal recidivism. Instead, it suggests a strategy of identifying and carefully monitoring the highest risk offenders and creating stable lives for the rest through treatment and access to housing, jobs and services.

In New Hampshire, where most towns are small and housing options that aren’t close to playgrounds and schools are sometimes scarce, such ordinances also have the effect of pushing sex offenders out of one community and into the next in a desperate search for decent housing – hardly fair to them or to those communities. That’s why state-level legislation makes sense.

The legislation banning communities from enacting or enforcing such residency restrictions has passed the House, but Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro expressed skepticism in an Associated Press interview that it would get through the Senate. “The Senate is going to want to protect kids and other people sexual predators could attack,” Bradley said. “I think getting rid of any kind of residency restrictions – like in proximity of schools and day-care centers – will be a very hard sell for senators, even in the face of a couple of court rulings.”

But the court rulings, which so far do not include the state Supreme Court, are not the best argument to counter Bradley’s fear. More persuasive is that senators who truly want to protect kids and others from attacks from New Hampshire’s 2,500 registered sex offenders, are actually heading in the wrong direction with such restrictions.

When a sex offender has served his sentence, it is in everyone’s interest that he succeed on the outside. Passing this bill would help.


Sex Offender Laws May Do More Harm Than Good - Human Rights Watch

Sarah Tofte Director of policy and advocacy, Joyful Heart Foundation

Sex offender laws may be doing more harm than good. That is the conclusion Human Rights Watch came to after two years of intensive research into sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws in the United States. Our research convinced us that politicians failed to do their homework by enacting popular laws without seeking expert advice on how best to prevent sexual violence.

Instead of an informed debate about how sexual violence ravages this country, politicians and the media have largely focused on child victims of truly horrific crimes by previously convicted sex offenders — like the murders of Megan Kanka, Polly Klaas, and Jessica Lunsford. Horrific yes, but uncommon, which means the laws are designed to tackle only a tiny minority and fail to address the full picture of sexual violence.

A growing number of child safety and rape prevention advocates agree that current laws are not working. For example, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), a state-wide coalition of 84 rape crisis centers and sexual assault prevention programs, had this to say about residency restriction laws: They “waste valuable resources on sex offenders who are unlikely to reoffend, while leaving a deficit of treatment, supervision, and focus on offenders who we know should be receiving more intense scrutiny.”

Two popular myths about child abusers underlie many of our sex offender laws: first, that our children have most to fear from strangers, and second, that sex offenders will inevitably repeat their crimes. But the data tell a different story. More than 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and trusts. And recidivism rates for sex offenders are far lower than most people believe — authoritative studies show that three out of four do not re-offend within 15 years of release from prison.

Furthermore, focusing much of our public policy resources on restricting the rights of former sex offenders will do very little, if anything, to protect the 87 percent of victims of sexual violence who were abused by someone who had no previous sex crime conviction.

Residency restriction laws, in place in 20 states, are based on another popular belief about former offenders — that keeping them away from places where children gather will reduce their risk of re-offending. But there is no evidence these laws diminish crimes against children and some to suggest the opposite.

A recent study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections analyzed 224 sex offender recidivists to see if where they lived had an effect on their crimes. The study found that residential proximity had very little impact on a recidivist’s opportunity to re-offend. Many took pains to drive far from their neighborhoods in order to re-offend. More than half (113) came into contact with their victims through “social or relationship proximity” to the child. The most common example was that of a male offender who found his victim(s) while socializing with their mother.

The main impact of residency restrictions may be to drive former offenders underground, away from families, police supervision and the help that can stop them re-offending. As an Iowa sheriff pointed out, “We’ve taken stable people who have committed a sex crime and cast them out of their homes, away from their jobs, away from treatment, and away from public transportation. It’s just absolutely absurd what these laws have done, and the communities are at greater risk because of it.”

Law enforcement officials and sex offender treatment providers repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that isolating former offenders is counter-productive. Existing parole and probation laws already permit law enforcement agencies to place restrictions and conditions on former offenders when appropriate.

All registered sex offenders must provide a home address, but because of the restrictions, some do not have a home. Police in Iowa, which has seen residency restrictions backfire, have resolved this conundrum by allowing individuals to register as homeless, if they specify a location. So users who go to Iowa’s online registry will find addresses listed as “on the Raccoon River between Des Moines and West Des Moines,” “behind the Target on Euclid,” and “underneath the I-80 bridge.” I visited some of these “addresses.” The areas are industrial, polluted, noisy, full of debris, and, in one case, right next to an active railroad track.

As a Des Moines police officer explained, “We don’t expect that the registrants are actually living under the bridge, it’s just one of the few places where they are legally allowed to admit they are living, and so they list that as their address, and go live someplace else.”

Since the law took effect in Iowa, police have lost track of hundreds of former offenders.

Even online registries, where the personal details of offenders, but not necessarily the nature of their crime, are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, may not be that useful. Some were convicted of non-violent offenses, others were children when they committed their crime. Police already have the duty to inform neighbors when an offender who might pose a threat moves in.

But it’s one thing to say parents should be told there’s a dangerous man living next door — which they should — and quite another to let anyone browse the registries to see who’s listed, regardless of any need to know. Unfettered access to registry information can and does lead to harassment, ostracism and even violence against former offenders. That doesn’t protect anyone. More effective would be to ensure that police actually pass on potential threats to the relevant community.

We deserve laws that protect everyone from sexual violence. Former offenders need laws that allow them to rebuild their lives — because when they succeed in safely rejoining their communities, we are all made safer. State and federal legislators should end residency restrictions and reform online registry and community notification laws so they target high-risk offenders.

It’s not surprising that those who know something about the nature of sexual violence in the United States have started to criticize the way the laws treat former sex offenders. But it’s a shame that politicians don’t seem to be listening to the experts who could help to craft laws that might actually prevent sexual violence.