Four years after being called out on poor public policy, Florida is STILL putting children at risk

[Note: This is an update to an article originally written on April 14, 2014 by Will Bassler]

On April 14, 2014, A national coalition of members of CURE, CURE-SORT, FAC, USA Fair and WAR members joined together to ask Florida legislators, “Why are the  many children and families of former offenders being placed in danger from missed opportunities of effective legislation?” “Are the children of citizens on the sex offender registry less valuable to law makers?” Nearly four full years later, we are still awaiting a satisfactory answer.

As of May 24, 2017, there were 69,917 people listed on the Florida state sex offender registry and the number grows daily. Legislators have neglected to accept the fact that registered citizens have families and children who are also affected by these restrictive laws and become victims of vigilante crimes, harassment, community ostracism and detrimental restrictions placed on them.

The mounting empirical evidence outlined in current research studies conducted by some of our nation’s finest scholars contradicts the use of residency restrictions and pocket parks as a public safety tool. A statement from the Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute Website emphatically states, “Research has shown when former sex offenders have stable housing, employment, and social/familial support (as are any former offender) they are less likely to commit new offenses. Residency requirements drastically reduce this stability.” Residency restrictions are frequently imposed as conditions of probation and parole and as a facet of registration laws in Florida. Residency restrictions create practical problems by minimizing access to therapeutic treatment and public services which are essential for successful re-entry from incarceration. “The proliferation of these types of restrictions is making it more difficult for corrections to fulfill their mandate of helping offenders make a successful reentry into society,” said Charles Olney, a research associate for the Center for Sex Offender Management , an affiliate of the U.S. Justice Department. The effects of residency restrictions raise concerns over efficacy and constitutionality.

Olney and other experts also question how effective the laws are at protecting children, because strangers are responsible for only about 6.7 percent of sexual attacks on minors. Although incidents of strangers kidnapping and sexually assaulting a child often make headlines, the Justice Department estimates just over 1% of the 60,000 to 70,000 reports of sexual assault filed each year involved an abduction by a stranger. “People are very, very fearful of strangers being near their children, and most of these laws are based on a knee-jerk reaction to that fear,” Olney said.

“Family members of registered sex offenders (RSOs) are the often-overlooked victims of collateral damage. Increasingly restrictive policies expose RSOs and their families to public scrutiny and place severe limits on RSOs’ employment, housing, and academic opportunities. These policies were designed to protect the public from sexually dangerous individuals, but the collateral consequences of the laws to others were presumably unanticipated.” (Exerpt from Levenson, J. S., & Tewksbury, R. (2009). Collateral damage: Family members of registered sex offenders. American Journal of Criminal Justice)

South Florida’s ongoing homeless crisis is a prime example of the negative consequences of enforcing residency restrictions. Nearly eight full years after the encampment under the Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge in Miami was dismantled, the city is still trying to figure out a solution to the homeless crisis they continue to deny was caused by the 2500 foot residency restriction law they named after Lauren Book, the daughter of South Florida’s most powerful lobbyist. Instead, the latest “solution” offered by the Miami-Dade Council was removing a local rule that prevents law enforcement from arresting the homeless without first offering a shelter to the homeless person. In other words, Miami seeks to arrest their way out of a crisis they created by legal fiat.

The Coalition speaking for the families of registered citizens in 2014 agreed that preventative measures are a priority and legislative reform is essential to include protecting all of America’s citizens and their children. It is also paramount to public safety to recognize not all former offenders pose equal risk to the community and not all former offenders should be subjected to the same restrictions.  We are calling on law makers (both in Florida and across the USA) to eliminate restrictions such as residency bans and pocket parks which have proven to be unconstitutional in many jurisdictions. Residency Restrictions place further burdens on law enforcement agencies that are charged with protecting all our citizens. All children and families need to be considered when enacting laws. Reform should be based on the empirical evidence and on science, not on emotion and a desire for vengeance.

Derek W. Logue, Reform Advocate

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