Sex offenders shut out of student neighborhoods

Lawmakers and college administrators are trying to shut paroled sex offenders out of one of the few places they can still live: Student neighborhoods near major U.S. universities.
More than 23 states ban registered sex offenders from living close to schools or other places frequented by children. But nowhere is that protection extended to the areas surrounding college campuses.

"A convicted sexual felon should not be able to live next door to your college student," said Jamie Ison, an Alabama state representative who sponsored a bill that would include universities under the legal definition of a school.

Online databases of sex offender addresses show that the issue affects universities across the country — wherever there are student neighborhoods with plentiful apartments and cheap rent.
In Los Angeles, 60 offenders live within a mile of the University of Southern California. Nine live within a mile of Duke University in Durham, N.C. In Chicago, six can be found within a mile of Northwestern University. Within a two-mile radius of Jacksonville University in Florida are 93 paroled sex offenders.

Ison and others are especially mindful of the risks facing young college women: "They're living away from home for the first time. They're staying out late. I know they're drinking. We need to ensure their safety."

Some schools such as the University of Washington have sought to push sex offenders out of campus neighborhoods without the aid of legislation.

Gov. Chris Gregoire raised concerns earlier this year with a landlord whose tenants included sex offenders. The landlord ousted 13 of the 25 parolees living near the Seattle campus, which was one of the first in the nation to begin establishing a buffer zone that would be off-limits to sex offenders.

Now the state Department of Corrections is trying to avoid placing convicts near the campus. But that effort does not extend to Seattle's other colleges and universities, including two private four-year schools in areas with more sex offenders than the University of Washington.
"It's a real problem to find them a place to live," said Anne Fiala, a corrections administrator. "People end up living under bridges or in cars. We would prefer they have a roof over their heads."

The Alabama bill died on the last day of the legislative session after critics raised doubts about whether there had been any reports of sex crimes instigated by a registered sex offender living near a campus.

But some students insist it's the state's responsibility to protect them.

"We deserve to feel safe on our campuses," says R.B. Walker, a University of Alabama senior who spent the past year lobbying for the bill. "For people to say this isn't a priority because it's based on the possibility of harm is just wrong."

Like many states, Alabama currently restricts sex offenders from living or working within 2,000 feet of any school or child-care facility.

At Jacksonville University in Florida, at least one official says college students are old enough to protect themselves, and he opposes legislation barring offenders from the school's urban campus.
"For the most part, these people have done their time," Public Safety Director Michael Kanaby said. "We're better off educating students and preparing them to take accountability for their own public security."

Convicted sex offender Chris Swires lived near the University of Oregon for close to four years while completing his degree. A landlord eventually evicted him because of complaints from neighbors who learned through an online sex-offender registry that he had been convicted of molesting children in 1998.

Swires, 33, later purchased a home in another area. But he is concerned that new laws would only make it harder to find housing.

"It's a stereotype based on bad myths," he said. "I think it's just a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist. It's going to make things 10 times worse."

But students say they don't want more laws, just clarification on existing rules. Walker and other Alabama students hope to revive the sex-offender bill and to see other states adopt similar changes.

"I think student safety should be a top priority for all schools," Walker said. "Anything less is unacceptable."

Crusading ex-Pa. lawmaker takes in sex offenders

Thursday, August 14, 2008 Marietta, Pa. --

A former tough-on-crime Pennsylvania lawmaker has adopted a new and unpopular cause, taking into his home three sex offenders who couldn't find a place to live — a stand that has angered neighbors, drawn pickets and touched off a zoning dispute.

As cities across the nation pass ever-tighter laws to keep out people convicted of sex crimes, Tom Armstrong said he is drawing on his religious belief in forgiveness and sheltering the three men until he can open a halfway house for sex offenders.

"I think that our system is trying to treat everybody under a particular brand and it doesn't work," he said. "And because of that we're creating housing problems, we're creating employment problems, we're creating community problems, and it's needless and it's not warranted."

Nearly 100 Pennsylvania municipalities have ordinances restricting where sex offenders may live. The ordinances generally bar them from moving in next to schools, playgrounds or other places where children might gather.

In early June, Armstrong quietly allowed a rapist and two other sex offenders who had served prison time to move into his 15-room century-old home 75 miles west of Philadelphia after another town blocked his plans for the halfway house. Soon, word got out after Armstrong's address appeared on the state Web site that lists the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders.
Residents of this former mill town of 2,700 on the Susquehanna River packed community meetings, circulated fliers with the men's mugshots and pressed officials for action.

"I understand how everybody deserves a second chance and all, but I'm not willing to risk my children and my neighbors to find out if they're rehabilitated or not," said Elizabeth Fulton, a mother of four who lives two blocks from Armstrong.

The town's zoning officer promptly taped a violation notice to the former lawmaker's door, citing an ordinance that limits the number of unrelated people who can live together. Armstrong is fighting the violation.

A Republican, Armstrong served 12 years in the Legislature before he was defeated in a primary in 2002. He was known for taking conservative positions on abortion, taxes and crime but also for his role in later years supporting prisoner rights. Over the past two decades, he also took in homeless veterans, and more recently he has been a mentor to ex-cons.

The 49-year-old insurance agent said his compassion for people he says are being treated as modern-day lepers stems in part from personal experience: Eleven years ago, he said, his brother was convicted of exposing himself to girls and was jailed.

"My evolution in this whole process, if it's meant to create positive change, then great, I'm all for that," he said.

Armstrong has a son, 19, and a daughter, 16. His son still lives with him, but his wife and daughter left to care for a sick relative and have no immediate plans to move back in, he said. The sex offenders are barred under the terms of their probation from living under the same roof with minors.

Municipalities across the country and at least a dozen states, from Georgia to Arizona, have placed limits on where sex offenders can live, sharply narrowing their options. In some cases, the rules have made entire cities off limits.

"It's what I call a tough policy that's not smart," said John Q. La Fond, a retired professor of law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an expert on sex offender policies.
He said there is no evidence that the laws reduce the number of offenders who commit another crime, and he said they frustrate efforts by ex-convicts to find housing, jobs and treatment.
Besides the rapist, Armstrong's guests include a man who fondled a 15-year-old neighbor girl and one who was caught with child pornography on his computer at the university library where he worked. Armstrong said they do chores around the house while they look for work and contribute whatever they can, up to $100 a month each, toward the utility bills.
He said defense attorneys and prison counselors had contacted him for help and assured him they were no threat to anyone.

When Armstrong heard pickets were planned, he put a cooler full of cold drinks on the sidewalk next to a cardboard sign with a handwritten verse from Jeremiah: "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sin no more."

Jessica's Law may not be hospitalizing more post-prison sex offenders,0,4411640,full.story
From the Los Angeles Times
Jessica's Law may not be hospitalizing more post-prison sex offenders
Under the law, more inmates who have completed their prison terms are being evaluated and recommended for indefinite hospitalization. But the number of commitments has not increased.By Charles Piller and Lee RomneyLos Angeles Times Staff WritersAugust 11, 2008When voters overwhelmingly approved Jessica's Law in fall 2006, many assumed it would lock away predatory child molesters and rapists who had slipped through the cracks of existing law.But by key measures, Jessica's Law may be failing to deliver on its promise -- and in some respects producing the opposite of its intended effects.As a Times investigation reported Sunday, the law has led far more sexual offenders to be evaluated and recommended for indefinite hospitalization after their prison terms end. But the number of commitments has barely budged.In the 18 months after Jessica's Law took effect, only 42 of 67 defendants in civil commitment trials -- 63% -- were sent to hospitals, compared with 41 of 51 -- 80% -- before the law.The finding is only the latest sign that the law, named for a 9-year-old rape and murder victim, is not working as intended, despite carrying costs that are expected to reach several hundred million dollars annually within a few years.Critics have cited problems with another key provision that banned registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, in some cases ruling out entire cities.The limits were meant to keep children safe. But the California Sex Offender Management Board suggested in a January oversight report that strict parolee residency requirements might tend to increase rather than reduce sex crimes. The panel said the number of offenders listing themselves as transient rose by 44% to nearly 2,900 in the first year after Jessica's Law passed."Current research concludes that suitable and stable housing for sex offenders is critical to reducing recidivism and increasing community safety," the panel said.John La Fond, a retired law professor and author of "Preventing Sexual Violence," put it this way: "We're locking up a small number, then releasing the rest and saying 'Good luck, and you can't live anywhere.' "State Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), who introduced Jessica's Law, said the concerns were strictly theoretical, unsupported by data showing an increase in sex crimes."We were prepared" for increased transience among sex offenders, he said. "That's why we require GPS."He was referring to a provision of Jessica's Law that requires lifetime monitoring of many offenders using the global positioning system. But that part of the law has proved controversial as well, because local law enforcement agencies, which would eventually handle most of the monitoring, say they lack money for it."I'm not aware of any sheriff in the state doing GPS," said Jim Denney, director of the California Sheriffs Assn. "There is no local funding tied to Jessica's Law."Jerry P. Dyer, Fresno's police chief and president of the California Police Chiefs Assn., said that most GPS monitoring of sex offenders, for now, was handled by the state."The concern under Jessica's Law is who has the responsibility for purchasing GPS units and monitoring offenders once the individuals are no longer on parole," he said. If it is a local responsibility, "that needs to be funded by the state."Runner has argued that Jessica's Law, which was mandated by 70% of voters, is sound, even if it could benefit from small adjustments."Our job is to implement what the voters have asked us to do," he said.To that end, Runner has sponsored Proposition 6 on the November ballot, which would move money from the state general fund to crime control, including $15 million annually for GPS monitoring by local law enforcement of gang offenders, violent offenders and sex offenders.Both the police and sheriffs associations support the measure, but Dyer expressed doubts that the funding would prove adequate and suggested that it might be necessary "to focus on the most serious sex offenders."The latest provision in Jessica's Law to come under question pertains to "sexually violent predators" -- a small minority of sex offenders believed to be committing crimes because of mental illness. They can be committed indefinitely to hospitals for treatment if a jury affirms the diagnosis of two psychologists or psychiatrists. A single sex crime can now lead to lifelong commitment.The evaluations cost $31 million in the last fiscal year, including payments to contract evaluators.Defense attorneys said the decline in the rate of hospital commitments followed new research about sex crimes -- much of it, ironically, sparked by statutes such as Jessica's Law. The studies have helped persuade some juries that sexually violent predators are far less common than previously believed."Five years ago sex crime recidivism was thought to be 50% or higher. Now we know it is closer to 3%, particularly for older men," said Todd Melnik, an attorney who has successfully defended several clients in such cases."Five years ago no one criticized the key assessment tool" used to estimate recidivism risk in sex offenders, he said. "Now people know it's about as bulletproof as Swiss cheese."As a result, jurors are more open-minded," he said. "They are looking beyond their natural fears and paranoia associated with these cases."Juries may be growing skeptical about evaluators who receive "flabbergasting" fees, said Michael Suzuki, Los Angeles County's supervising public defender for such cases.According to state records, 14 experts earned more than $500,000 for the evaluations, and two earned more than $1 million."Where do you draw the line? Where does the amount of money you are making influence your decisions" and exert subtle pressure on evaluators to recommend commitment? Suzuki said. "Is it $100,000? Is it $500,000? Is it $1 million?"Stephen Mayberg, director of the state Department of Mental Health, which manages the evaluation program, defended the state's implementation of the law.It "has heightened our awareness and has probably done a better job identifying high-risk sex offenders," he said. "The fact that we are trying to protect the public, and that there is so much attention and energy going toward that, really reflects the public's desires."Mayberg said the state does not track whether high-earning evaluators tend to recommend civil commitment more often.Runner said that because many trials are pending, it would take at least a year to see if the declining rate of commitment holds."The trend will be more [sex offenders] being held," he said, adding that even a small increase would justify the law.Others question the law's fundamental fairness. La Fond, the retired law professor and author, called the commitment provision "indefinite detention masquerading as involuntary treatment.""It's like the roach motel," said Dr. Howard Zonana, psychiatry professor at Yale University and medical director of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. "Once you check in, it's hard to check out."California is hardly unique in its approach, however. Nineteen states have adopted civil-commitment laws, some similar to the Golden State's, said Eric Janus, dean of William Mitchell College of Law and a national expert on the laws.Other states have rejected civil commitment in favor of longer prison terms and more intensive monitoring of parolees -- with good results at lower cost.But after statutes such as Jessica's Law are passed, it becomes almost impossible, politically, to rein in the programs regardless of their cost-effectiveness, Janus said."Once the box is opened you can't shut it," he said. "No one is going to say it's too expensive."