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Sex offender residency restrictions

I usually try to do one post on civil cases a week here, but as you might have guessed from the title, that's going to be a stretch this week.  True, the case I'm going to discuss, the 8th District's decision a couple weeks back in City of Parma v. Silvis, is nominally a civil one, but only by buying into the fiction that laws pertaining to sex offenders -- sexual predator designations, residency restrictions -- are really "civil" actions of a remedial nature.

Silvis was caught up in the current craze for imposing stiff residency restrictions on sexual offenders.  In 2006, seventeen years after Silvis' convictions and designation as a sexual offender, the City of Parma asked the court to evict him from his house under RC 2950.031, because it was situated within 1000 feet of an elementary school.  Barely:  the prosecutor's argument was that the distance between the front corner of the school's lawn and the front corner of Silvis' driveway was 997 feet.

But argument is all it was; although the prosecutor stated that if the defendant didn't stipulate to an aerial map, he'd call witnesses to prove the distance, the record contained no stipulation, no witnesses were ever called, and the map never found its way into the record.  The appellate court concluded that the trial judge's order to Silvis to vacate his home was against the manifest weight of the evidence, a decision undoubtedly made easier by the fact that there was no evidence supporting it.

If it sounds like I'm defending the right of sex offenders to live among us, I'm not.  Silvis wasn't a choirboy by any stretch, as his convictions for rape and kidnapping would attest.  I'm not even going to buy into the argument that he'd "done his time," and shouldn't suffer further punishment or humiliation.

But like so much of the criminal justice system, residency restrictions on sex offenders are a classic example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  The idea was to protect children from "stranger danger," the pedophile lurking around playgrounds and schools.  Fortunately, while child abductions get the media coverage, they're exceedingly rare; about 80-90% of child molestations are perpetrated by acquaintances or family members, and residency restrictions don't do anything to effect that.  All the available evidence indicates that sex offender restrictions haven't done anything to reduce sex crimes against children.

If the laws were merely ineffective, that wouldn't be a problem, but there's evidence to suggest that they're counterproductive in several ways, as the Iowa County Attorneys Association, hardly a pro-criminal organization, noted in a recent report.  Echoing similar findings from studies in Colorado, Florida, and Minnesota, the Association noted that such laws tend to result in sex offenders wind up bouncing around to various residencies or even becoming homeless, making them harder to track.  One state found that the net result of its residency restrictions was no change in the rate of child sex abuse offenses, but a doubling of the number of sex offenders who were supposed to register with police but hadn't.

Complicating all this, of course, is the blunderbuss approach of "sex offense" categorization.  It would be one thing if the registration requirements were applied only to convicted child molesters, but the classification of sex offenders subject to residency restrictions often goes far beyond that.  Oklahoma, which prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center, includes a conviction for urinating in public as a sex offense.

But as in most aspects of criminal justice, there's far more political gain in pursuing harsh policies than in pursuing sensible ones.  On Tuesday night, the Green Bay city council approved a law banning sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, church, park, day care center, or youth facility, essentially making all but a small sliver on the north side of the city off limits.  And last week the City of Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, passed an ordinance not only restricting sex offenders from living with 1,000 feet of any "School Premises, Licensed Daycare Facility, Preschool, Any Public Park, Swimming Pool, Library or Playground," but from being employed within 1,000 feet from those areas as well.


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