Sunday, March 7, 2010

There Will Be Another Julia Tuttle `There will be another Julia Tuttle,' sex offender says.

"No Trespassing" signs were posted Friday afternoon under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, warning vagrants and sex offenders against settling under the concrete overpass that had housed them for years.

Under a clear sky and in brisk air, with traffic booming overhead, work crews took sledgehammers to the wooden shacks, shingled huts and flimsy tents along the bank of Miami's gleaming Intra-coastal Waterway.

Most of the homeless sex offenders who lived there have been moved out, and the few who remain are on a short waiting list for housing that falls within Miami-Dade County's revised sex-offender law.

So it would seem the practice of dumping South Florida's sex offenders where no one can see them -- or even find them -- is nearly over. But it's not.

"It's the end of the Julia Tuttle, but it's not the end of this kind of place,'' said Patrick, a registered sex offender who has lived under the rat-infested bridge for three years and did not give his last name. "There will be another Julia Tuttle, another place where people will put us so that we are out of sight and out of mind.''

At one point, more than 100 convicted molesters and other sex offenders lived under the bridge. In the past decade, more than two dozen states and hundreds of cities have responded to the public outcry over sex crimes against children by passing residency restrictions. In many cases, the laws have effectively banned sex offenders and predators from living within huge swaths of cities and towns -- separating them from their families and support systems -- and settling them far from transportation and job opportunities.

By rendering them homeless, experts say, the laws make it more difficult for them to reenter society, harder for law enforcement to keep track of them and easier for them to fall into lawlessness.

In South Florida, the zones that were carved out over the past few years forced sex offenders to live at least 2,500 feet from almost anywhere children congregate: schools, libraries, bus stops, playgrounds and parks.

Not all sex offenders are hard-core predators or child rapists. Some of them are referred to as having committed `"Romeo and Juliet'' crimes, which involve intimate relations -- not always sex -- among young couples, one of whom is under the age of 16. However, by law, all the offenders are lumped into the same category, and end up being labeled sex offenders for the rest of their lives, whether they raped a child or urinated in a public place where children play.

Ron Book, a powerful state lobbyist who helped push for the strict laws, is still a staunch supporter of sex-offender residency laws. But he now believes that, in some ways, they've been counterproductive. "Nobody should have ever said that this was an acceptable place to go,'' Book said of the Tuttle enclave, which he visited Friday.