Since he was released from prison almost five years ago, John has never had a place he can call home.
Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he spends nights outside in remote areas of Miami-Dade County—sleeping outside on a mat or in the front seat of his son’s truck.
John (not his real name) was convicted in 1994 of a sex offense involving a minor. His homelessness is a direct result of the Lauren Book Child Safety Ordinance, enacted in Miami-Dade County in 2010, which bans individuals convicted of certain sex crimes, including those involving minors, from living within 2,500 feet of a school.
The ban effectively puts most populated areas of Miami-Dade off limits to him—which is why John is allowed to stay at his niece’s home, which is within the exclusion zone, during the day, but not at night.
The ordinance was named after Lauren Book who, after being sexually abused by a family nanny, went on to become an advocate of tough penalties for individuals convicted of sex crimes against minors. Brook, now 32, won a state Senate seat in 2016 as a Democrat representing Broward County.
Violating the ordinance can result in a $1,000 fine, jail for up to 364 days, or both.
John is one of seven homeless people who sued Miami-Dade County in a case brought jointly in 2014 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Florida, alleging that the ordinance has resulted in hundreds of people becoming homeless.
Legal Services of Greater Miami and attorney Valerie Jonas later joined the ACLU and ACLU of Florida in litigating the suit.
In the case, which went to U.S. District Court in Miami last October, the ACLU argued that the residency restrictions are punitive— and thereby unconstitutional—because they subjected the plaintiffs to a punishment that was enacted after their conviction, and were not a reasonable civil remedy to a public safety concern.
On Dec. 18, 2018, U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck upheld the ordinance.
“The Court concludes that the Ordinance’s residency restriction is rationally connected to the non-punitive purpose of protecting children from sex offenders,” Huck wrote in his order.
The plaintiffs are appealing.
“All of our plaintiffs, if not for the restriction, [would] have somewhere to go,” Brandon Buskey, Deputy Director for Smart Justice Litigation at the ACLU, said in an interview with The Crime Report.
“They’re forced to be homeless.”
According to the plaintiffs, the ordinance excluded them from almost 99 percent of affordable and available rental units in Miami-Dade County. Only approximately 388 such units in Miami-Dade County are not within 2,500 feet of a school, according to the plaintiffs.
Generally, the areas outside the buffer zone are in industrial zones or agricultural areas, according to the suit.
“[The ordinance] pushes people to the most remote parts of the county,” said Buskey.
As a result of the residency restriction, people convicted of sex crimes have formed homeless encampments along railroad tracks and industrial areas, where some probation officers have reportedly directed their clients (including John), the complaint said.
The residency restriction even makes the county’s homeless shelters off-limits, Buskey added.
A National Issue
The issue extends well beyond Miami-Dade.
Since the mid-1990s, counties, towns, cities, and states throughout the country have implemented a variety of different residency restrictions, creating an evolving patchwork of where a person on the sex offender registry can or can’t live.
Housing bans are one of many restrictions faced by registrants, sometimes for decades or a lifetime, depending on local statutes. Many are also subjected to public humiliation via online registries that display their photo, and detail their name, offense, home address, and employer’s address.
As Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel wrote in an amicus brief filed earlier this month: “[R]egistrants are no longer simply shamed in the public square of one’s own community; they are shamed in the eyes of their county, their state, their nation— and in our global economy, the world.”
Michigan state law bans registrants, with some exceptions, from living or “loitering” within 1,000 feet of a school, and mandates extensive reporting requirements.
The state’s ban, Nessel wrote, “criminalizes living in vast areas, severely limiting registrants’ housing and employment options” — a finding, she notes, shared by the Supreme Courts of Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry Act (SORA) has been and continues to be the subject of extensive litigation.
Advocates warn that these types of banishment laws only serve to marginalize and destabilize the lives of registrants and their families, without advancing public safety.
“If what you’re concerned about is individuals coming out of prison and committing more sexual offenses there’s a rich body of literature, practice, and experience on how to manage that risk,” Buskey said.
“[That literature] rejects the idea that pushing people to the margins and making it harder for them to find a home and be stable after release is part of that solution.”
More than 20 states have enacted some type of statewide residency restriction for people convicted of sex crimes, according to the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws. Florida state law, for instance, prohibits people on the sex offender registry for certain crimes from living within 1,000 feet of a school, child care facility, park, or playground.
Hawaii may be added to the list as earlier as this year, Hawaii Rep. Scott Y. Nishimoto introduced a statewide residency restriction which would largely mirror the state of Florida’s housing ban.
Nishimoto did not respond to requests for comment from The Crime Report.
The residency restrictions within Florida illustrate the complicated legal landscape for registrants and their families: Florida state law applies only to those whose crimes occurred after it was enacted in 2004; this means the Plaintiffs in the ACLU suit are not subject to it.
However, the Miami-Dade County’s housing ban applies to those convicted of certain sex crimes even if they are not required to be on the sex offender registry and even if the crimes occurred before the ordinance was enacted.
In some states, like Texas, for instance, that don’t have a statewide housing ban, localities can and do implement their own restrictions.
‘Nowhere Left to Go’
“What we’ve seen, especially with the smaller cities, is banishment,” said Mary Molnar, executive director of Texas Voices for Reason and Justice, an organization dedicated to educating the public about the harms caused by the registry. “In some of these smaller cities, there is nowhere left to go.”
While the minutiae of the laws vary, the stated justification is often the same: to protect community members, especially children, from sex crimes.
“The intent of this Article is to serve the County’s compelling interest to promote, protect and improve the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the County, particularly children,” reads the Miami-Dade County ordinance.
This view was echoed in the County’s legal filings which state: “[T]his Court need look no further than the ordinance’s full title— ‘The Lauren Book Child Safety Ordinance’ —for evidence of a legislative intent to protect children rather than to punish sexual offenders.”
In a statement emailed to The Crime Report, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose Pepe Diaz said, “Miami-Dade County won an important victory for children’s safety last December. The residency restriction ordinance, which I was proud to sponsor in 2005, has kept sexual predators away from our children, and I will continue to fight to keep our children safe.”
However, evidence to support this rationale appears to be lacking.
In Attorney General Nessel’s brief, she detailed numerous studies which have found that there is no relationship between residency restrictions and the occurrence of sexual violence.
“SORA’s [Sex Offender Registry Act] geographic exclusion zones are affirmative disabilities and restraints, are excessive in relation to the expressed purpose of public health and safety, can lead to banishment of both the registrant and his or her family, and are contrary to the desired goals of rehabilitation, stability, and re-integration into community life,” Nessel wrote.
Residency restrictions can actually undermine public safety by depriving people of the very connections that help reduce recidivism—family support, stable housing, employment, and access to treatment, according to victims’ advocate Alison Feigh.
Rather than isolating people who have committed sexual harm, she said, “we want to surround them by their supports, we want to surround them with their services.”
“We’re all about whatever helps keep kids safe, and research shows that residency restrictions don’t help keep children safe,” said Feigh, who is the director of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center (JWRC).
The JWRC was founded by Jerry and Patty Wetterling, whose 11-year-old son Jacob was abducted and murdered in 1989 in St. Joseph, Minnesota. About five years after his disappearance, the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act became law, mandating that states maintain registries of people who have been convicted of sexual offenses or crimes against children.
“It’s a better idea for that offender to be surrounded by people who are going to support them in not re-offending,” Feigh told The Crime Report. ”
Feigh also notes that the majority of sex crimes are committed by someone known to the victim, not strangers.
“It’s about the relationship that the offender has to the child and not where they live,” said Feigh.
Residency restrictions often also reflect the entrenched belief that those convicted of sex crimes will reoffend. The Miami-Dade county ordinance, for instance, declares that those impacted by the ordinance “present an extreme threat to the public safety,” and “are extremely likely to use physical violence and to repeat their offenses.”
Lower Recidivism Rates
However, advocates note that the recidivism rate for people convicted of sex crimes is lower than most offenses. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, just over five percent of those convicted of sex crimes are arrested for another sexual offense within three years of their release.
“There has been research that shows recidivism rates for individuals who have committed sexual offenses are lower than those of other crimes,” explained Laura Palumbo, Communications Director for National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a victims’ advocacy organization.
“But that’s not something that is understood by the general public; instead there is a mentality that it’s inevitable that people will reoffend.”
Not only are residency restrictions ineffective at reducing sexual harm, according to advocates, but they can also duplicate racial disparities found in the criminal justice system. Black men were registered at a rate roughly twice that of white men, according to a study published in 2016 by Trevor Hoppe, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Hoppe also found that close to an estimated one percent of all black men in the U.S. are now on the sex offender registry.
“There are extreme racial disparities across the criminal justice system and so this is no exception,” said Hoppe. “We shouldn’t be surprised to see these disparities crop up in this area.”
These types of disparities are replicated among their clients, according to Buskey. Of the seven plaintiffs who have been involved in the case since the initial filing, the overwhelming majority have been black or Latino, he said.
Those forced into homelessness by the ordinance also tend to be low-income residents, according to Buskey. John, for instance, who is unemployed, relies on food stamps and $750 in monthly disability benefits, according to court documents.
“If you’re somebody who’s a registrant, but you’re coming back to a wealthier household you can make a decision to simply leave the county,” he said.
Buskey hopes stories like John’s can act as a warning to other communities that are considering enacting similar residency restrictions.
“There is almost literally no reason to believe that these things will work and every reason to think they’re going to make things worse,” he said.
Editor’s Note: The ACLU video “In Internal Exile,” can be viewed here.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. You can follow her on Twitter @elizabethweill.