Sexual Offender Residence Restrictions
Adopted by the ATSA Executive Board of Directors on April 5, 2010
The availability of online sex offender registries has increased awareness of sexual offenders living in the community and has increased concerns for the safety of children, leading politicians to pass laws restricting where sex offenders can live. Residence restrictions typically prohibit individuals convicted of sex crimes from residing within 500-2500 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, daycare centers, bus stops, and other places where children are commonly present. Currently, 30 state laws have been adopted to prohibit sex offenders from residing near places frequented by children, and thousands of similar municipal ordinances have been passed in cities, towns, and counties throughout the U.S.
Summary and Recommendations
The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) believes that whenever possible, development and implementation of social policies should be based on research. It should be noted that to date, few research studies about residence restrictions have been conducted. The research that has been completed does not support the hypothesis that sex offenders living in closer proximity to places where children congregate are more likely to reoffend.
ATSA strongly supports sex offenders being held responsible for their crimes. ATSA also supports effective management of sex offenders living in communities in order to reduce sexual recidivism. When sex offenders are living in the community, it is imperative they be monitored and reintegrated carefully through effective legal supervision and treatment. Community notification has increased awareness and concerns about sex offenders living in residential neighborhoods. Therefore ATSA offers the following recommendations for managing the housing needs of sex offenders:
- Some sex offenders are dangerous and housing decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, collaboratively by parole/probation agents and treatment providers after an assessment of risk.
- “Child safety zones” or “loitering zones” can serve as an alternative to residence restrictions. Such initiatives prohibit sex offenders from frequenting places where they can cultivate relationships with children. In some cases loitering laws can be supplemented with GPS monitoring devices that alert officials when a sex offender enters a forbidden area without a legitimate reason. Loitering laws are designed to manage the daily activities of sex offenders at risk for abusing children, while housing laws dictate primarily where sex offenders sleep at night.
- Residence restrictions should never be applied to juvenile offenders as this can lead to minors being prohibited from living with their parents in residential neighborhoods.
There is no research to support that adult sex offenders’ proximity to schools or parks leads to recidivism. Researchers from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that not one of 224 recidivistic adult sex offenses would have been prevented by a residential restriction law. In Florida, researchers found that the distance adult sex offenders lived from schools and daycares was not associated with recidivism; recidivists did not live closer to schools and daycares than nonrecidivists (Zandbergen, Hart, & Levenson, 2010). The bottom line is that adult sex offenders do not molest children because they live near schools. Typically they abuse when they are able to establish relationships with children and their families and misuse positions of familiarity, trust, and authority. According to the Justice Department, 93% of sexually abused children are molested by family members, close friends or acquaintances. Children are most likely to be assaulted by people they know, not strangers lurking in schoolyards. Thus, residence restrictions do little to prevent the most common situations in which children are likely to be harmed.
Research shows that sex offender residence restrictions increase transience, homelessness, and instability. These laws interfere with effective tracking, monitoring, and close probationary supervision, undermining the very purpose of registries. Research also shows that housing instability increases both absconding and criminal recidivism. Residence restrictions are simply not a feasible strategy for preventing child sexual abuse. In fact, across the nation law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and victim advocacy groups have issued public position statements opposing residence restrictions. Laws that foster instability for offenders are not likely to be in the best interest of public safety.
Residence restrictions decrease housing availability for sex offenders, especially in major metropolitan areas. Research shows that in densely populated areas over 90% of residential parcels are located within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, daycare centers or bus stops; in one county in Florida, over 99% of housing fell within 2,500 feet of these locations. Research does suggest that residential restrictions greatly diminish housing availability and decrease access to employment opportunities and social services.
Residence restrictions, at best, promote a false sense of security for concerned citizens. At worst, they undermine sex offender registration and interfere with effective management of sex offenders by decreasing stability and thus increasing the likelihood that these offenders will resume a life of crime.
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Zandbergen, P. A., & Hart, T. C. (2006). Reducing housing options for convicted sex offenders: Investigating the impact of residency restriction laws using GIS. Justice Research and Policy, 8(2), 1-24.
Zandbergen, P. A., Levenson, J.S., & Hart, T. C. (2010). Residential proximity to schools and daycares: An empirical analysis of sex offense recidivism. Criminal Justice & Behavior (forthcoming) .
1 The focus of this Policy Paper is on residence restriction policies in the United States.