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NYCLU Challenges Law Banishing People Convicted of Sex Offenses

Class-action lawsuit argues that the geographic-restriction law SARA is overly broad, undermines rehabilitation, and fails to advance public safety.

NEW YORK – The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging the Sexual Assault Reform Act (SARA), a New York law that prevents certain people required to register on the state’s sex offender registry from knowingly being within 1,000 feet of a school at any time and for any reason and has been interpreted to also prevent these individuals from living within this radius.  

In dense urban areas like New York City, where it is rare not to be within 1,000 feet of a school, this restriction forces thousands of New Yorkers into homelessness and to the fringes of society, while failing to advance public safety. Across the country, state and federal judges have recognized that residency restrictions are based on stigma, counter-productive, and potentially harmful to public safety and have struck down similar laws in California, Michigan, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

“Banishment is not an appropriate way for our society to treat formerly incarcerated individuals. The Constitution requires that people convicted of sexual offenses are treated with human dignity and are not subjected to unnecessary, vague and expansive restrictions that hinder their ability to reintegrate into society,” said Daniel Lambright, senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Research shows that banishment laws like SARA do not reduce recidivism, but instead make it impossible to obtain jobs, find housing, and become productive members of their communities. Laws that undermine rehabilitation make our communities less safe and must be abolished.” 

Geographic restrictions such as SARA are premised on several inaccurate myths, including that people who commit sexual offenses are likely to enter school grounds, and that they have high levels of recidivism. However, research shows that sexual offenses are not likely to target strangers, and that the rates of recidivism for sexual offenses are significantly lower than general offenses. Additionally, SARA’s banishment applies to people who have never used proximity to a school to offend, people who have never offended against children, and even people who have never committed an offense involving sexual contact or motivation but still must register. 

The class action lawsuit includes named plaintiffs “M.G.” and “J.L.,” who are both subjected to SARA’s geographic restrictions. 

“Trying to avoid SARA’s restrictions is like trying to avoid landmines – you never know where they might be hidden. This makes my life beyond stressful. I live in a kind of purgatory: no longer behind bars, but not entirely free,” said J.L., who spent 27 years in prison and now works with a nonprofit helping people who were wrongfully convicted. “We must recognize the humanity of all people even if they have been convicted of terrible offenses. I am working hard to rebuild my life and contribute to society, but SARA sends the message that the system won’t let us redeem ourselves. This is wrong.”  

“My life is deeply affected by SARA’s restrictions, which are so broad that they impact people like me who have never been convicted of offenses involving sexual conduct or motive,” said M.G., who spent 4.5 years in prison and is now forced to live in a shelter 2 hours away from his family because of SARA’s geographic restrictions. “I have children and I want them to be safe too. However, SARA doesn’t protect anyone and only makes our lives unbearable. It prevents me from fully being with my family. Those are the people you are supposed to be around, who can support you emotionally and help you find your place in society. With this lawsuit, I hope to end this nightmare.” 

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) will only release individuals from prison when they are granted parole or reach their conditional release date if they can identify a SARA-compliant address. According to NYCLU analysis conducted in 2020, in New York City, 84% of residential units are restricted by SARA. In Buffalo, SARA restrictions cover 56.7% of residential parcels and 90.9% of hospital and health facilities. Due to the lack of compliant addresses statewide, individuals are forced to stay in prison past their release dates or transferred to other prisons known as Residential Treatment Facilities (RTFs). About 250 people in New York are kept incarcerated each year despite having earned their release. Due to the impossibility of identifying SARA compliant housing, these individuals are at extremely high risk of homelessness, housing instability, and living far from family, work and healthcare.   

“This lawsuit highlights the cruelty and uselessness of our sex offense laws,” said Emily Horowitz, a sociologist who has spent nearly two decades researching and writing about sexual offense policies. “An indisputable body of social scientific research has documented geographic restrictions’ failure to reduce sexual recidivism and sexual offending. These laws, largely based on fears, myths, and obsolete data, publicly shame and create barriers to employment and housing, undermining successful re-entry. It is time for our courts to rely on accurate and current research so that those who have been held accountable have the opportunity to rebuild their lives.” 

You can find case materials here:


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