State fosters homelessness with offender registry law

Daytona News Journal Editorial

Because of its perverse laws against sex offenders -- laws that permanently brand offenders and forbid them to live in many parts of the state -- Florida is actively creating homeless colonies.

At least two have cropped up with the Department of Corrections' help. One is under a bridge below the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami. About 20 offenders live there. Another is in the woods off John Young Parkway in Orlando, long frequented by the homeless. Needless to say, neither colony has running water, electricity, sanitation, telephones or security. At least one murder took place at the Orlando camp this year.

Before offenders are released from prison, the Department of Corrections spends up to three months locating a place to stay for them anywhere in the state. When the search proves fruitless, they point to the homeless camps. Some offenders go there. Others disappear, which goes against the state's interest in keeping track of them.

It's easy to say that the offenders get what they deserve. No one forced them to break the law, after all. Now they're paying for it. Not exactly: Paying for it is going to jail, serving out sentences and supervision time. Once they've done that, they're owed the same basic rights as anyone else. Creating colonies of homeless ex-offenders isn't the offenders' doing. It's the doing of state and local laws that wantonly deny ex-offenders their rights, property rights among them.

The system goes out of its way to ensnare former offenders again. Take Gideon Bernhard, a 59-year-old man who lived in Deltona until summer. In 1998, he was convicted in Seminole County and sentenced to probation and community control on charges of sexual acts with a 14-year-old girl. In 2006, he was again on probation. He had not recommitted sexual acts with a minor. Most sex offenders don't recommit. His offense: He'd failed to register as a sex offender. That year, the law changed, requiring offenders to register twice a year instead of once. But why require ex-offenders who have served their time to register at all, especially when it turns into such an easy setup for lawbreaking?

For Bernhard, probation set him up for his next problem. At a July 4 parade he was arrested for disorderly conduct for pointing a laser light at spectators. (He owned an LED laser light business.) The charges were dropped, but not before Bernhard spent 120 days in jail awaiting a hearing. Because of the probation charge, he was ineligible for bail. And because he spent 120 days in jail, he was thrown out of his three-bedroom home in Deltona and his business inventory was seized. He'd been able to live in that Deltona home because his residence there pre-dated the city's draconian ordinance forbidding sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of where children gather, including bus stops. Without the grandfather clause, Bernhard had to find a place that fit the new restrictions. Aside from swampland on the periphery of the city. Deltona barely has such places.

So Gideon Bernhard, who'd been living a relatively productive life, lost it all due to a series of circumstances, none of which should have led to his eviction. Now he's homeless and living in the wretched camp in the woods off John Young Parkway. Bernhard paid his debt for the 1998 sentence. Now he's paying the state's debt for hysterical, indefensible laws.

States and localities, pushed by courts, are beginning to realize that the draconian laws forbidding sex-offender residence are wrong and counterproductive. But it's a slow process. As far as eliminating Florida's homeless colonies is concerned, it shouldn't be. The state created the problem with those draconian laws. The state should assume the responsibility of housing the offenders more decently by providing a shelter or underwriting the costs of the offenders' stay -- anywhere appropriate but in homeless camps. Source
[Ed: Bravo! Journalists do not often criticize the witch hunt and this one is to be commended for exercising both bravery and intellect in taking these wretched laws to task.]

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