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Exiles On Main Street

City Council Request to Limit Residency of Sex Offenders May Be Too Restrictive

Areas in black on the map are within 2,000 feet of an accredited school or full-time daycare center. Under a law requested by the City Council last month, sex offenders would not be allowed to live in those areas. More than 1,000 home-based day care providers and an unspecified number of other locations where children congregate are not shown.

By Chris Landers | Posted 12/10/2008

The City Council last month asked state lawmakers to introduce laws limiting where registered sex offenders in the city could live. The law, which would prohibit offenders from living within 2,000 feet of "a school, day care center, or location where children congregate," would effectively ban registered sex offenders from the city.

City Paper mapped the locations of schools and larger day-care centers, based on state data, and discovered that few, if any, residential areas of Baltimore are farther than 2,000 feet from either.

LOCATE: Child Care, the nonprofit which contracts with the state to keep a database of licensed day-care centers, provided the locations of 253 full-time childcare centers in the city. The nonprofit also tracks more than 1,000 home day-care centers, but declined to release those locations.

Across the country, residency restrictions on sex offenders have proven popular, but problematic. Childrens' advocates and sex-offender treatment experts say there is no evidence that residency laws do anything to reduce recidivism.

"It's kind of like thinking you're going to stop bank robbers by not letting them live in close proximity to a bank," says Fred S. Berlin, head of the Baltimore-based National Institute for the Study, Prevention, and Treatment of Sexual Trauma. "There is no evidence in the jurisdictions that have these laws that it's cut down on sex offenses."

A policy paper from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, a Minnesota nonprofit that fights child exploitation, says residency laws may do more harm than good because they drive registered offenders underground, making them more difficult to track. "Because residency restrictions have been shown to be ineffective at preventing harm to children, and may indeed actually increase the risks to kids, [the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center] does not support residency-restriction laws," the paper states. "Such laws can give a false sense of security while sapping resources that could produce better results used elsewhere."

Nancy Sabin, the director of the Wetterling center, in an e-mailed response to questions for this article, wrote this:

"Councilman Warren Branch, who introduced the Baltimore resolution, says it was proposed in response to concerns he heard from his 13th district constituents.

"I was at one of the eastside community association meetings," Branch says, "and it was brought up that there were sex offenders living near two of the schools near Oliver Street and Lakewood, and some of the residents saw one of the offenders speaking to one of the young kids. They notified channel 45 and there were maybe 50 people who attended that meeting--screaming and shouting."

Upon investigation, Branch says, he came across a bill that had been introduced at the state level more than once, but died in the Judicial Committee. He says he was surprised no one in the city delegation had taken up the issue before, given the number of times he had heard complaints from residents. He says he drafted the bill hoping to spur state representatives to action.

Asked whether the 2,000-foot limit would force offenders out of the city, Branch says he would consider a smaller figure. "We can work on scaling it back," he says. "The way we have it, it's about eight or 10 blocks away from a school. I would feel comfortable with about two or three blocks. We don't want to send them somewhere where they would have to go and hide.

"I can relate to the constituents," Branch says. "We don't want to place [the children] out there like candy for them. The [offenders] who are going through treatment or something like that, we don't want to place them in the line of fire with some of the kids."

Critics of residency laws say they are based on myths about sex offenders--according to the U.S. Justice Department, the majority of sex offenses are committed by someone known by the victim, and that most sex offenders were unlikely to re-offend. The City Council resolution borrows language from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to warn that sex offenders have a high risk of re-offending, and are largely unknown to the community, although the organization itself opposes residency laws.

According to the Council for State Governments, 24 states have passed blanket residency restrictions similar to the one Branch proposes, with restriction zones ranging from 500 to 2,000 feet. The council found that pressure on state legislators for tougher sex-offender laws had increased, even as the efficacy of residency restrictions was called into question.

In Iowa, one of the first states to enact a sex-offender residency law, some legislators are attempting to scale back the law after the number of offenders that police couldn't locate skyrocketed. The Iowa County Attorney's Association, made up of prosecutors in that state, issued a statement in 2006 calling for the repeal or amendment of the residency restriction, saying that it caused a reduction in the number of confessions and plea agreements made by sex offenders, forced offenders from established residences, and compromised the safety of children. The restrictions have proven difficult to get rid of. Keith Kreiman, an Iowa state senator and cochair of the state's judiciary committee, told USA Today last year that it was difficult to scale back or amend the residency laws once they had passed. "It is very politically risky to even hold hearings [on residency laws]" he said, because of fears of being seen as "soft on crime."

In Maryland, a residency law similar to the one requested by the City Council has been introduced in prior sessions by Baltimore County Del. Eric Bromwell (D-8th District), who did not respond to calls for comment for this story. In 2006, Bromwell wrote a letter to his constituents promising to introduce residency requirements after two registered sex offenders were discovered to be living near a school. The measure died in committee in 2007 and 2008 legislative sessions. Branch said Bromwell's bills prompted him to draft legislation asking for city delegates to support them.

"If we can put some laws in place for the safety of the child," Branch says, "that has to come first. It's sort of hard to call, but if we don't have any measures in place, then we don't have any guidelines to go on."

Del. Curtis Stovall Anderson (D-43rd District), head of the Baltimore delegation, was unavailable for comment. Ian Brennan, spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, says the mayor would reserve judgment about supporting a residency law until it had been drafted at the state level.

The National Institute's Berlin cautions that the laws need to be based on available evidence.

"There are a lot of things that need to be looked at carefully," he says. "Sometimes in the rush to enact this legislation these things are not very well addressed. . . . I'm open to evidence that [residency laws are] serving a useful purpose in the community, but at this point it's really based more on fear--understandable fear, but fear and emotion--rather than something that's showing in a rational fashion that this is going to be effective public policy. . . . I understand the emotions, I understand the fears, but these laws are really important--first in terms of community safety, and second, as long as the community's safe, treating the people who have served their time fairly and helping them to get a new start in the community."

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