Pennsylvania sex offender residency restrictions don’t work

Filed under: Criminal Law, Sex Crimes Tags: by Steven F. Fairlie @ November 25, 2011

Everyone agrees with the goal of protecting children from Pennsylvania sex offenders, but enacting laws imposing residency restrictions on convicted sex offenders is not the way to go about it.  The restrictions have proven to be ineffective, ambiguous, and a waste of resources. Here’s why:

Convicted sex offenders are often forced to move to rural areas, where neighbors are further apart.  Banishment to these rural zones deprives the offenders from accessing the family, employment, and treatment programs that they need to begin an effective re-integration into society. Those who can’t move to rural areas are sometimes forced to become homeless. For example, sex offenders are legally barred from living in 93.5% of Buffalo, New York.  If an offender can’t find a home in the 6.5% of the city that is not off limits, the person cannot maintain an address in Buffalo at all.  It’s also important to note that this is not fair to the families who already resided in the 6.5% of Buffalo that now might find a sudden “concentration” of sex offenders in their neighborhoods. Surely, there are children who live in that 6.5% – why concentrate offenders in their neighborhoods?

If an offender becomes homeless, think of how difficult it’d be to track him down and make sure he was complying. Under the laws, which only restrict where an offender lives, the now-homeless offender can spend basically all of his time hanging out near prohibited areas because he doesn’t actually “live” anywhere in particular.

The laws also aren’t effective because they are worded in confusing and ambiguous ways. Many statutes list places like “teen/community centers” and “dance halls” but don’t define what exactly those places are. Do they include gyms? Municipal buildings? Malls?  The local senior center? Places where square dancing is taught? Not even those who passed the laws are sure, so how can the offenders know where to stay away from?  There really is no effective way to specify exactly what should be prohibited.

Those who choose to ignore the requirements frequently get away with it. For example, 90% of offenders in Schenectady County, New York were living in restricted zones, and 100% of offenders living in the City of Schenectady were doing so in restricted zones. Enforcement is apparently too difficult, expensive, or time-consuming for many police forces to handle.

Does living 1000 feet further from a daycare prevent a true pedophile from reoffending, or even reduce the risk thereof.  Remember, the person is still free to drive or walk wherever he wants – there is no restriction on that.  If you force the person to become a hermit living in a rural cabin what happens when a child does walk through the woods in that area?  Residency restrictions will never stop those who plan to or want to reoffend.  We need better and different safeguards for that.

Residency restrictions also cause more cases to go to trial, because a plea deal to a lesser sex-related charge would still require the offender to leave his home and set up elsewhere – no easy task. By having to repeatedly come to court and testify, victims will be further traumatized. The threat of having to testify might even cause some victims to want to avoid going further with the case. A higher number of actually guilty defendants will be set free, because sex cases are notoriously difficult to prove at trial.

In Pennsylvania, many localities have enacted residency restrictions. However, as of May 25, 2011, such laws are in jeopardy of being struck down as unconstitutional. On that date, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Fross v. County of Allegheny, 20 A.3d 1193, found, for all the reasons above, that the local ordinance at issue was inconsistent with Pennsylvania state law’s objectives of “rehabilitation, reintegration, and diversion from prison of appropriate offenders.” Currently, Pennsylvania’s statewide Megan’s law only imposes a reporting requirement, where a sex offender must report his/her residence, so that nearby residents can know about their presence. There is no statewide residency restriction.  The bottom line here is that local municipalities are spending a fortune enacting laws that are likely to be struck down, ultimately a waste of taxpayer money.  It might be a better use of taxpayer money to closely supervise released offenders and increase recidivist penalties than to try to impose arbitrary rules about where they can live.

In the coming months, it will be very interesting to see how many more ordinances like the one in Allegheny County will be repealed by local municipalities  or invalidated by the courts. If you have been charged with a sex crime, contact a Pennsylvania Criminal Lawyer at Fairlie & Lippy for a free case consultation.

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