This legislation amends the correction law to prohibit an individual who is required to register as a sex offender under New York State law from residing within five hundred feet of a school.
Under current law, the terms of convicted sex offenders’ probation or parole may limit where they can live during the time that they are on probation.
However, this legislation represents the first effort to impose a statewide residency restriction which would apply to all sex offenders in New York during the entire time that they are on the registered sex offender list.
Because we believe that strict residency restrictions amount to wholesale banishment of registered offenders from communities and that there exists no evidence that they contribute to public safety, NYCLU strongly opposes this legislation.
Sex crimes are deplorable. They are often violent, and sometimes involve children. Victims suffer devastating, long-term psychological impacts. Communities, families, and individuals are understandably outraged by such crimes, and want to take all possible measures to protect children from the tragedy of sexual abuse.
Residency restrictions are advanced by those who genuinely believe that they are an important measure to prevent children from becoming victims. The theory behind residency restrictions is that by keeping registered offenders from living near places where children gather, communities can prevent these former offenders from victimizing children.
However, this approach rests on two pervasive misconceptions about registered offenders: one, that they reoffend at a rate that far exceeds that of any other kind of offender; and two, that those who do reoffend choose victims who live near to them. As we explain below, decades of evidence show that neither of these assumptions is true.
This legislation is a misguided attempt to impose the first state-wide residency restriction in New York. All of the existing evidence from more than a decade of state experiments with this type of restriction on former sex offenders demonstrates that these restrictions do not work. They fail for several reasons:
First, the rate of re-offending among sex offenders is in fact quite low. Second, residency restrictions are premised on the false notion that there is a relationship between where offenders live and where they offend.
Third, courts are beginning to strike residency restriction laws down because they effectively leave former offenders with nowhere they can live. And finally, residency restrictions have the counterproductive consequence of driving registered offenders “underground” and ceasing to comply with reporting requirements, which may actually lead to a decrease in public safety.
Registered Sex Offenders Do Not Reoffend at a High Rate
Residency restriction laws assume that registered sex offenders are responsible for most sexual crimes. In fact, 96% of people arrested for child molestation were first-time offenders. The most recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that just 3.3% of people convicted of violent sexual offenses against children were rearrested for a new sex crime within three years of their release (the time during which most re-arrests occur).
One long-term study of 12,863 individuals convicted of committing sex crimes in New York found that just 2% of released inmates who served time for a sex offense were subsequently convicted of another sex crime.
Recidivism rates among sex offenders are in fact much lower than recidivism rates among people convicted of other felonies. There is little evidence to support the conclusion that placing restrictions on where registered sex offenders live prevents future sexual violence.
Residency Restrictions are Ineffective
Residency restriction laws, such as A.1947/S.4026, presume that former sex offenders will commit crimes again if they live close to children. However, all of the empirical research into the efficacy of residency restriction laws has found that such restrictions do not reduce the risk of harm to children.
Residency restriction laws assume that children are most often sexually assaulted by strangers and in public places. However, 93% of sexual assault victims under the age of 17 are assaulted not by a stranger, but by a family member or an acquaintance. 70% of sexual assaults take place within the residence of the victim.
Such laws may incorrectly lead communities to feel secure by overstating the threat posed by strangers. As a result, families may ignore the fact that children are most likely to be sexually assaulted by people they already know and in their own homes.
Preventing registered sex offenders from living near public places where children gather will not prevent assaults. Research has found that sex offenders are less likely to offend near their homes, and may travel up to three to five miles to access victims.
A Colorado study found that sex offenders who committed crimes against children did not live within close proximity to schools or playgrounds, but were scattered randomly throughout the state.
Residency restriction laws are overly broad because they apply to all registered sex offenders, regardless of whether an offender committed a crime that involved children. Teenagers convicted of engaging in consensual sex with other teenagers are required to register as sex offenders.
Further, A.1947/S.4026 applies to all levels of registered sex offenders, notwithstanding that Level I sex offenders have been classified as such precisely because they do not pose an ongoing public safety threat. Many individuals on the registered sex offender list are not a threat to public safety or to children; accordingly, there is no reason to limit where they can live.
Finally, as a practical matter, prohibiting registered offenders from living within 500 feet of a school may entirely preclude these individuals from being able to live in certain communities. A study of residency restrictions in Orange County, Florida (which prohibit registered offenders from living within 1000 feet of schools, parks and day cares) found that only 5% of the county was habitable for registered offenders.
Registered offenders often resort to homelessness or living under bridges (with the approval of their states) because the residency restrictions prevent them from living anywhere else.
As a practical matter, given the density of the population in New York State (and particularly in New York City), preventing registered offenders from living within 500 feet of a school may make it virtually impossible for them to live in many communities. Courts are beginning to strike down statewide residency restrictions because they make it too difficult for registered offenders to find permanent homes.
Residency Restrictions May Increase the Threat to Public Safety
In actuality, residency restrictions may result in a decrease in community safety by destabilizing registered offenders. Residency restrictions can result in sex offenders living separately from their families, thereby depriving them of an important source of stability. The restrictions push sex offenders to reside in more rural and isolated areas, resulting in decreased access to employment opportunities and valuable social services.
Residency restrictions can lead to isolation, economic and emotional stress, and instability, all of which are factors associated with recidivism and technical parole violations. One recently commissioned study on residency restrictions in Colorado concluded that “a tight web of supervision, treatment and surveillance may be more important in maintaining community safety than where a sex offender resides.”
Unable to find an acceptable place to live, registered offenders may choose to stop reporting their locations and “go underground,” making it more difficult for law enforcement to keep track of sex offenders in their jurisdiction. Iowa found that it went from having 140 sex offenders who were not reporting their residencies to 400 “underground” registered offenders after enacting a strict residency restriction.
Such a result contravenes the purposes of sex offender registry requirements, and limits law enforcement’s ability to monitor registered offenders. In New York, several local residency restrictions have been struck down by courts as being inconsistent with the goals of state parole and probation laws.
The passage of A.1947/S.4026 will not promote safety by limiting where registered sex offenders can live. It will result in significant harms to registered offenders, and will likely have the counterproductive effect of increasing the likelihood of reoffense. For these reasons, we oppose the bill and urge members of the Senate to vote against it.