Perils of bans on ex-sex offenders

Christian Science Monitor

Politicians should heed a state supreme court that has voided a ban on where sex offenders live.Last week, Georgia's supreme court became the first high court in the US to overturn a state law that restricts areas where former sex offenders may live. More than half the states have such laws, and many amount to banishment. Perhaps this decision will nudge politicians to reconsider these laws.

The Georgia case wasn't argued on the emerging view that the residency bans are counterproductive. Rather, it turned on an unusual application of the Fifth Amendment, which says the government may not take private property without just compensation.

The case concerned Anthony Mann. In 2002, he pled no contest to "indecent liberties with a child," then served four months in jail, followed by probationary supervision. In 2003, he married and bought a home in Georgia. Mr. Mann made sure it did not lie within 1,000 feet of any area where minors gather as defined by the state.

But a day-care center moved to within 1,000 feet of the Manns. His probation officer said he must move or face arrest. Mann sued, arguing the law was unconstitutional because it amounted to an illegal "taking" of private property.

The state supreme court unanimously agreed, adding that Mann faced repeated uprooting. This time, a day-care center broke the 1,000-foot barrier, the court found. Next time it could be a playground, a school bus stop, a skating rink.

The ruling voided the residency part of Georgia's sex-offender law. The decision, though, may not have much legal impact outside the state. Most state residency bans aren't as severe, and the case rests uniquely on property rights.

But the ruling will do well if it persuades lawmakers that blanket residency bans are no response to public fears stemming from tragic, high-profile cases of convicted child predators repeating their crimes.

Such fears are understandable but misplaced. About 80 to 90 percent of child sexual abuse occurs with a family member or someone a child knows. And sex offenders have among the lowest recidivism rates of any class of criminals. Yet sweeping residency restrictions that focus on "stranger-danger" have multiplied in states and cities.

Several studies show no correlation between child sex offenses and where perpetrators live. Law enforcers now argue that bans make things worse. Zones overlap, ruling out living possibilities in urban areas. Offenders are forced into rural America, far from jobs, treatment, and family, which provide stability and rehabilitation. Full Story

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