Saturday, December 5, 2009

Residency Rule for Sex Offenders Under Scrutiny (FL): Residency Rule for Sex Offenders Under Scrutiny.

There are unintended consequences, counselors and offenders say, of a 2006 county ordinance that expanded residency restrictions for offenders and predators. The ordinance is under renewed scrutiny after the arrest last month of a group of homeless sex predators in Auburndale.

Supporters have said the ordinance is for the protection of the public, but critics say that it's had the opposite effect. It's increased the number of homeless sex predators and offenders, actually increasing the likelihood of further offenses.

"Desperate people do desperate things if they feel like there's no hope," Edward said in a recent interview. He is currently living on-and-off with family in Auburndale. "People can change. They have to want to. But if they're told everyday that they can't, why would they believe that they could?"

Polk County is among several Florida counties that have gone beyond state law to expand restrictions. Now many counties are facing similar challenges, and offenders and those who treat them say county commissioners should rethink the ordinance.

The part of the ordinance that "hurts the most" is the rule that predators must live at least 1,000 feet away from school bus stops, he said. While the ordinance keeps predators from living nearby, it does little to prevent them from treading near restricted places, he said. That means it's ineffective in preventing wayward offenders from offending again.

The process for finding a residence is mainly trial and error. Once an offender has found a potential residence, he or she contacts their probation officer or the Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office plugs the address into a computerized mapping system that shows whether or not it is out of a restricted zone. If it's not, it's back to the drawing board, and the offender must try again. Although the DOC is allowed to provide offenders and predators with some guidance, both it and the Sheriff's Office say they do not tell offenders where they can live. They're on their own for that.

The DOC admits the ordinance has made finding housing more challenging for offenders. Crump, the former probation officer for the DOC, said the ordinance has also placed an extra burden on law enforcement by making it more difficult to track offenders.

And treatment providers like Brimer say the ordinance ignores the reality of sex offenses - that most are not committed by strangers. In two years of child sexual abuse investigations by the Polk County Sheriff's Office, 94 percent of crimes were committed by suspects the victims knew, like Edward, including family members, friends and acquaintances.