Why Sex Offender Residence Distance Restrictions Are Problematic

By Emma V. – Criminal Justice Intern

PlaygroundIndividuals who have been mandated to register for their state’s sex offender registry must not only encounter hardships of societal re-entry after incarceration, but also navigate laws set forth by the state pertaining to sex offender registration requirements.  One of the most restrictive of these requirements dramatically complicates registrants’ integration back into society after incarceration.  Residence distance restrictions forbid sex offenders from living within a fixed number of feet or blocks from certain locations.  Many states restrict offenders from residing near playgrounds, schools, and churches.  Realistically, finding a residential area without at least one of these institutions proves to be near impossible.  This hinders a sex offender’s chance at a smooth transition back into society and causes even more strain on an individual who is unable to find housing outside of the exclusion zones.

39 states and 3 U.S. territories have implemented sex offender residence distance restrictions in some capacity.  The required distance and the list of establishments vary widely across jurisdictions.  Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have comparatively large distance restrictions that sex offenders must abide by.  Alabama and Oklahoma prohibit residency for offenders within 2,000 feet from schools and places that are heavily populated by children.  Mississippi enforces residence distance restrictions that prohibit offenders from residing within 3,000 feet of a school, childcare, playground, ballpark, or rec facility used by minors.  Distance restrictions of this magnitude interfere heavily with a registrant’s ability to find housing.  Stable housing is a cornerstone of successful reentry and is vital to any returning citizen’s chances of staying out of prison.  For those on the sex offender registry, housing plays an even more significant role.  Registrants who are unable to find housing in an approved area too often become homeless, with many homeless shelters refusing to accommodate them.  This creates a challenge for law enforcement.  Homeless registrants are significantly more difficult to monitor.  Although implemented with intentions of protecting the public, residence distance restriction laws do not always have a positive impact on the criminal justice system.

NeighborhoodWhile the majority of states do implement these restrictions, 11 states and 2 territories have no laws that restrict where registrants live.  Sex offenders in these states, including Kansas and Vermont, have an easier time finding housing because they do not have to search in such limited areas.  In 2013, a federal judge in Colorado overturned the laws that placed residence restrictions on sex offenders.  He determined that these laws served as an obstacle when it came to societal reentry for registrants.  Although it is noted that some local laws regarding residence restrictions do exist, most registrants in Colorado do not have to follow state-wide distance restrictions while finding housing.  This makes the process of finding somewhere to live easier for registrants, considering they do not have to avoid most residential areas.  Colorado’s removal of residence distance restriction laws could worry residents who assume sex offenders are simply being freely released into society, but this is far from true.  The vast majority of citizens released from prison onto the registry are under some form of government mandated supervision, such as parole or probation.

Colorado is not the only state that has raised concern over how effective residence distance restrictions are.  Various other states have determined restricting where a sex offender can live is equivalent to a second sentence, as it serves as a punishment during parole and probationary periods.  Since 2014, California and New York have adjusted their restrictions in regard to where sex offenders can live, while Massachusetts has removed their restrictions completely.  Federal judges in Illinois, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Alabama, Nevada, and Idaho have also challenged the constitutionality of residence distance restrictions.  While some of these states have altered their distance restriction laws to create smaller exclusion zones, other states cannot gain the support of lawmakers.

Legislators in most states, as well as the general public, have a firm belief that barring sex offenders from living in certain areas creates a safer living space.  This claim is not supported by the fact that most sex offenses are committed by someone who the victim knows and by someone who is either a first-time offender or who has not yet been caught and is therefore not on the registry.  Sex offenders who are registered are statically unlikely to reoffend.  Residence distance restrictions therefore provide a false sense of security and are an extremely burdensome set of laws that cause more harm than good.