Newsweek : A Bridge Too Far - Residency restrictions have forced child sex offenders in Florida to camp out under a causeway. Now the man who helped put them there is having second thoughts.
Ron Book, of Plantation, Florida, mounted a legislative onslaught on sexual offenders. Among the many measures he championed, the most significant were local residency restrictions that barred registered sex offenders from living within a certain radius--usually 2,500 feet--of places where children gather, like schools, parks, and playgrounds. By the time he was done, Book had helped pass such ordinances in some 60 cities and counties throughout Florida and beyond.
The impact on the offenders was severe. Entire cities were suddenly off limits to them. They became pariahs, confined to remote and shrinking slivers of land. The most egregious example is a colony of predators camped out under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, which spans Miami's Biscayne Bay—a place so surreal and outlandish that it has become a lightning rod in the debate over America's treatment of sex offenders. For a long time, Book was unrepentant about having helped create that community of outcasts. But eventually his fury began to subside, and was replaced by something Book isn't accustomed to having: doubts.
The causeway colony may be an extreme example, but sex offenders have been similarly uprooted across the country, as lawmakers have seized on residency restrictions in recent years. Thirty states and hundreds of cities and counties—162 in Florida alone—have adopted them in some form. In Iowa, thousands of offenders were displaced, which forced many into shabby motels around Des Moines and others onto the streets. In Suffolk County, N.Y., those left homeless were crammed into a trailer that periodically moved around until finally settling on the grounds of the county jail. Such accounts dismay most experts on sexual crimes. "This very-well-intended policy is making the public less safe," says Susan Brown-McBride, chair of the California Sex Offender Management Board. It "destabilizes [offenders] by making them homeless."
Even some staunch supporters of residency restrictions have expressed misgivings after witnessing the chaos the ordinances sow. Florida state Sen. Dan Gelber, whose district is home to the Julia Tuttle camp, is adamant about the 2,500-foot rule. A father of three, he recently learned, to his dismay, that a registered sex offender who lived six doors down from him was arrested for masturbating in front of some children. Despite his hardline stance, however, Gelber was aghast at what he observed in his first visit to the bridge in early July--the density of the encampment, the sordid conditions. "There has to be another way," he says.
Before long, however, the unintended consequences of these laws became apparent. Though some cities and counties passed the measures enthusiastically, just as many enacted them defensively, to prevent castaways from a neighboring jurisdiction from settling in theirs. Janice Washburn watched that happen in her unincorporated enclave of Broadview Park in Broward County, Fla. As one nearby city after another enacted residency restrictions, predators poured in. In August 2007, Broadview Park had four registered offenders. A year later, there were 39. A few months later, there were 106. "It was multiplying like crazy," says Washburn, who now sits on a county task force to address the matter. In response, Broward County approved an emergency 2,500-foot restriction in April and is now studying whether to pass a formal ordinance. "It is 'not in my backyard,' and not a good solution," says County Commissioner John Rodstrom. But "what are we left with?"
This disorder might be tolerable if the residency policies were effective. But "there is no evidence that [they] protect children," says Jill Levenson, a professor of human services at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., who has examined the issue in depth. In Iowa, for example, there was no reduction in the number of reported sex crimes after the restrictions took effect, she says. Moreover, a 2006 National Institute of Justice report found that only 11 percent of female victims under age 12 and 16 percent of comparable males were raped by strangers; most were assaulted by relatives, teachers, and other people they knew. If anything, the residency statutes make things worse, some activists say. In Iowa, the number of offenders who absconded doubled in the six months after the restrictions took effect. "If an offender ends up with no residence, that shouldn't make any of us feel safer," says Patty Wetterling, whose son's abduction prompted the creation of the first federal sex-offender registry in 1994. "What they need is stability, support, counseling, and treatment." (Studies have shown their recidivism rate is typically 10 to 15 percent (actually 5-6% according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics here) , and treatment often proves more effective with certain groups, like juveniles, says Richard Wright, asso-ciate professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.)
Earlier this year, Book began reconsidering his position—spurred by lawmakers on both ends of the spectrum who'd begun questioning the wisdom of the ordinances. "I had to take stock and ask myself, 'Am I in the right place or not?' " he says. In an interview with a Newsweek reporter in June, Book admitted, "I was wrong"—three times. A few days later he had dinner with Levenson, the Lynn University professor, who's critical of residency laws. "Five years ago, I thought of you as a predator sympathizer," he told her. "I didn't see the bigger picture." He concluded the evening by assuring her,?"I will be part of the solution."
With characteristic tenacity, Book is now trying to undo the bridge fiasco. The battle over the settlement's fate has recently escalated. In early July the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade County, alleging that its residency restrictions interfere with the state's ability to monitor offenders. Shortly thereafter, Miami officials sued the state, arguing that the colony should be removed since it lies within 2,500 feet of a tiny island that the city claims is a park (the governor's office replied in a letter to the city that the Department of Corrections doesn't place predators under the causeway and that released prisoners bear responsibility for finding housing that conforms with the law).
We must be very careful to not allow Ron Book to now be held up as a 'hero' , just because he finally realized how wrong he was in creating this debacle. He is still responsible for inflicting tremendous pain and hardship into the lives of thousands of people and their families. And this pain still continues every day for them.
We have just become aware of a 1995 Miami News article about Ron Book's multiple violations of campaign finance laws in Florida