Restrictive Residency Rules and the Illusion of Public Safety

/ Wednesday, April 10th, 2013 / No Comments »

The latest strategy to restrict where convicted sex offenders live is to create parks where none exist to force registered sex offenders to move out of a neighborhood. The City of Los Angeles plans to build three pocket parks in the communities of Harbor Gateway and Wilmington. California state law prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a park, playground school or a daycare center. Some states restrict living within 1,000 feet or near certain bus stops. There are similar residence restrictive laws in every state along with sex offender databases and community notification of where offenders live, known as Megan’s Laws. The unintended result of super-restrictive sex offender zoning makes it impossible for sex offenders to find stable housing and forces them to cluster and crowd together in motels and apartment buildings, or sometimes under bridges creating homelessness, often away from family or other potentially positive supports. There is concern that these over-restrictive policies can backfire and actually increase recidivism.

Located in southern Los Angeles, Harbor Gateway, a community of about 40,000 people, has one of the city’s highest concentrations of registered sex offenders: 86 registered offenders live in a 13-block area. The park will be created in a space the equivalent of a backyard on a grassy corner large enough to fit a jungle gym and a couple of benches. The park is being explicitly created to restrict offenders from congregating in the area not necessarily to create green space for kids to play. No one can fault the community for its concern for safety especially of its children or blame its civic leadership for wanting to do something about it. Restrictive living and working rules keep multiplying with the goal of public safety. But do these living restrictions improve public safety or exacerbate the potential for re-offending?  As there are fewer and fewer places for offenders to live and work they will continue to resort to clustering or worse: go underground. Creating housing instability can limit employment opportunities and access to social services and social support. Visibility, surveillance, accountability, treatment and support are some of the protective factors that can help an offender stay on the path of non-offending and reduce recidivism.

Convicted sex offenders and registrants are all painted with the same brush of pariah and monster, so it is very challenging for communities to think beyond the criminal justice lens to include public health approaches. But might we be risking being blinded by the illusion of safety when we don’t explore the complexity and the diversity of these offenders and call for research on what really works best. There is little room for political leadership to ask these important questions. Forcing offenders to go missing or go underground by promoting overly restrictive residence and employment restrictions may very well be one of those illusions of public safety that can backfire and create more risk and increase recidivism.


This blog was originally featured on the Joyful Heart Foundation blog, 1in6 Thursdays

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