Efforts grow to keep tabs on sex offenders

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hundreds of cities and 15 states have laws that restrict where sex offenders can live. Now, private businesses are getting into the act of protecting residents from this group, too.

A Texas developer, for instance, is building "sex offender free subdivisions" here and in Kansas, and a new national website, started by a Texan, lists homes for sale that have no registered sex offenders living within a half-mile radius.

It's all part of a wide-ranging effort to address Americans' concerns about sex offenders living next door.

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Just Thursday, President Bush signed into law what child advocates are calling the most sweeping sex-offender legislation in 25 years: the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named for the murdered son of "America's Most Wanted" host, John Walsh.

By creating a national database that links the already federally mandated state registries, the new law – among other things – will make it harder for sex offenders to take advantage of varying state laws to avoid detection. It creates a new federal felony charge, punishable by 10 years in prison for failing to update their contact information, and categorizes them by tiers so that resources can be targeted at the most dangerous offenders, says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which pushed the measure.

More than 563,000 people in the US have been convicted of sexual offenses – and 100,000 are noncompliant, meaning they have failed to keep up with registry laws, says Mr. Allen. "That is just not acceptable," he adds. "Those who won't even comply with the simple minimum requirements of identifying where they are and what they're doing pose the greatest risks. This legislation is aimed at training the nation's resources on that group."

However, his organization is not "wildly enthusiastic" about laws that restrict where sex offenders can live.

One such ordinance was passed earlier this month in Humble, Texas, north of Houston, and punishes sex offenders for living within 1,000 feet of a school or day-care facility by fining them $2,000 a day until they move.

South of Houston, so many municipalities have passed similar ordinances that surrounding communities worry that if they don't follow suit, they will become dumping grounds for sex offenders.

"The key is to know where they are and what they're doing, not to limit where they can live. Because, by doing so, you may be inadvertently pushing them into a situation where we no longer know where they are," says Allen.

Others say databases that track convicted sex offenders and ordinances that restrict where they can live miss the point. "My concern is the misdirection by public officials and parents toward strangers and away from the real threat: the family and friends they know," says John LaFond, author of "Protecting Society from Sexually Dangerous Offenders: Law, Justice, and Therapy."

Studies show that almost 80 percent of sexual-crime victims know their perpetrators, says Mr. LaFond. "These new monitoring laws are symbolic gestures by politicians to show that they are doing something. But in the long run, they do a disservice to the community."

Buying a home that is somehow "free" from sex offenders – whether in a subdivision or a neighborhood that has been screened – is a marketing ploy that feeds on uninformed fears, he adds.

But that has not stopped Texas-based I&S Investment Group from selling out all 150 lots in its "sex offender free subdivision" in Lubbock, Texas.

It is also breaking ground on a similar subdivision outside Kansas City, Kan., in August, with plans for more elsewhere.

The subdivisions' rules will ban sex offenders from moving in, and if residents become sex offenders while inside, they will be fined $1,500 a day until they move.

Taylor Goodman of Dallas in June launched BlockWatcher.com, a website listing homes for sale across the country that have no sex offender living within a half-mile radius. "It's a pretty hard accomplishment," says Mr. Goodman, adding that only about 20 percent of all homes for sale qualify. "This issue knows no bounds. There was an $18 million home for sale in San Francisco that did not qualify."

He also says about 90 percent of the realtors he talks to are not happy about the new website. Studies show that property values can decline if a sex offender moves into the neighborhood.

This spring two Columbia University economists studied data in communities around Charlotte, N.C., and found that a home's value fell 4 percent when a registered sex offender moved in within a 1/10-mile radius. That added up to a loss of $4,500 to $5,000 per home and $59.5 million for the entire county, says Leigh Linden, who worked on the study.

The two concluded that people may go to great lengths to avoid living near a sex offender. "This is definitely more than politicians trying to outdo each other by being tough on crime," says Dr. Linden. "People really care about these things."

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