Restrictive law makes N.Y. city off-limits to sex offenders
Many states grapple with tighter controls
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. -- Convicted sex offenders could risk re-arrest here if they pull off the highway to gas up their car because of a new law that makes it almost impossible for them to live, work, or even drive in this upstate city.
Binghamton is about to become a test case in New York for how far municipalities can go in restricting residency and everyday travel of sex offenders. Fifteen ''John Doe" plaintiffs have sued in federal court over the law, which is so sweeping that a person registered as a moderately or severely high-risk sex offender cannot drive on most roads in this city of 47,000. A hearing is set for Sept. 23.
Mayors, city councils, and county boards are wrestling with how to respond to residents' fears of sex offenders in a nation bombarded with news reports about the kidnapping, rape, and murder of children by sexual predators.
The goal of many local laws is to restrict offenders' ability to live in, and move through, communities. When one community acts, surrounding ones often follow suit to avoid being viewed as a haven for sex offenders.
In Florida, convicted sex offenders who are on probation and under court order to avoid children can no longer stay in public hurricane shelters, which are often in schools. Under a Florida policy enacted this summer, those offenders can instead seek shelter in a prison. The new policy applies to only six people in the state.
In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, all sex offenders are prohibited from shelters and the county does not offer alternatives. The sheriff's department customarily advises sex offenders to ''keep up with the weather, know what your restrictions are per court mandate, and don't come to a shelter," said J. D. Callaway, a department spokesman.
In some states, such as Massachusetts, legislators are working to improve registration laws and make access to lists of convicted sex offenders widely available. In other states, including Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma, sex offenders can be monitored with global positioning devices.
Mayor Richard Bucci of Binghamton is unapologetic about the law, which he signed in early May, despite warnings by city attorneys that it would be challenged.
''I think in the end, New York state is going to have to strengthen its policies, because what you have now is local governments struggling to deal with these issues, because we don't think the state has gone far enough," said Bucci, a three-term mayor who was in office when a sex offender killed a 4-year-old girl in 1995.
In describing the law, Bucci said, ''When we plotted it on the map, it virtually eliminated the whole city of Binghamton." Registered moderate- and high-risk sex offenders are prohibited from living or entering within a quarter-mile radius of any public or private school, day-care center, playground, or park.
Critics say that local restrictions can raise equal-protection challenges that turn all sex offenders into an isolated subclass, regardless of their crime or response to treatment.
''We start off with very good intentions -- that is, the need to protect children," said Jim Cameron, who was the first New York state director of child protective services in the 1970s. ''But then we unfortunately begin to overreact and go to extremes we never intended to go, and I think that's what's happened here."
Laws making it difficult for sex offenders to live or work in a community could also make it difficult to keep track of them because they will move so frequently, said Dennis Kaufman, executive director of Legal Services of Central New York in Syracuse, which is representing the Binghamton plaintiffs.
''This law actually disrupts any offender's ability to establish themselves in the community, to get a job," Kaufman said. ''And part of the treatment is to have stability and a job." Binghamton has delayed enforcing its law until the court case is resolved. Still, two plaintiffs lost their jobs because employers feared violating the restricted zones, Kaufman said.
Even before residency restrictions started, more than 30 states had sex offender registries. The registries are an offshoot of Megan's Law, named for the New Jersey child who was raped and killed in 1994 by a convicted sex offender. The 1996 federal version of Megan's Law encouraged states to release information on sex offenders, using access to federal crime-fighting money as an incentive.
All 50 states passed a version of Megan's Law and many have gone beyond the scope of the original legislation by creating online registries and establishing systems for notifying residents when a sex offender moves into a community. Last month, the federal government linked the online registries of nearly two dozen participating states and the District of Columbia to one website managed by the Department of Justice (National Sex Offender Public Registry, www.nsopr.gov). There are now 551,000 registered sex offenders in the country, said Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan's Law, a national child advocacy group.
Both critics and supporters of registration laws say their effectiveness is questionable. Ahearn said that a 2003 survey by her group highlighted how easily laws can fail if they don't have adequate funding or cooperation between state and municipal officials.
''We found that nearly a quarter of the nation's sex offenders were failing to comply with state registration laws," she said. ''At that time, there were 461,134 registered sex offenders."
But many child protection activists say the registries are not enough and are calling for residency restriction laws.
The number of such laws at the local or county level nationwide is not readily available, said Charles Onley, a research associate at the Department of Justice's Center for Sex Offender Management. But such measures are in place or under consideration, statewide or locally, in many states, including Massachusetts, Texas, Alabama, Nevada, Oregon, New Jersey, and California, as well as Florida and New York. The laws generally prevent offenders from living within 1,500 to 2,500 feet of places where children congregate.
In states such as Iowa, Tennessee, Illinois, and Ohio, residency restriction laws have resulted in widespread evictions of offenders, Onley said.
The push for stricter monitoring of sex offenders has also reached Congress. Federal lawmakers introduced several bills last spring that would penalize states for failing to tighten supervision. The push to increase federal oversight was fueled by the highly publicized kidnappings and killings of two Florida girls -- 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in February and 13-year-old Sarah Lunde in April. In both killings, a convicted sex offender was charged.
Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring a bill that combines many separate reform proposals into one package, known as the Children's Safety Act. The Judiciary Committee approved it last month; it goes before the House in September. Among its highlights are tighter controls on state sex offender registries, greater cooperation among states in tracking offenders, and a national pilot program of electronic monitoring.
But as momentum grows for tighter restrictions against sex offenders, activists pressing for such restrictions caution that monitoring systems are effective only if states can ensure compliance.
Beginning next year, Nevada will require offenders to renew their driver's license annually to help track them.
New York is moving more cautiously. The state's Division of Criminal Justice Services -- which manages criminal databases -- will not comment on the Binghamton case. But Jessica Scaperotti, an agency spokeswoman, said, ''Unless someone is under parole or probation, you can't tell someone where to live."
New York's Republican-dominated Senate has passed a civil confinement bill, under which high-risk offenders could be held indefinitely, even after their prison terms end. The bill has not moved in the Democratic-dominated Assembly.
For now, specialists in child protective fields see restrictions against sex offenders continuing unabated, partly because municipal officials do not want their communities to be havens for offenders.
The intent of Megan's Law was laudable, said Cameron, ''but that tracking became almost a passion, it became so intense, and it just kind of swept everyone up."