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."