Although the news might not sit well with some parents, the Warwick Police Department says that the elimination of residency restrictions for Level III sex offenders does not pose a danger to …
Although the news might not sit well with some parents, the Warwick Police Department says that the elimination of residency restrictions for Level III sex offenders does not pose a danger to students at local schools.
“I do not believe that the elimination of the 1,000’ law will add any more risk to the community,” said Chief Bradford Connor.
A 300-foot restriction was introduced in 1996, which was expanded to a 1,000 foot radius in a law approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo in 2015. An injunction was filed against the law shortly after its introduction which has largely barred its enforcement. The lawsuit claimed that vague language made the statute unenforceable, and that even if it could be enforced, the restrictions violated due process without any clear benefit to the community.
In his March 16 ruling, Chief US District Court Judge John McConnell Jr. agreed with the injunction, saying that “neither an ordinary person nor law enforcement could understand the statutory language that attempts to define the boundaries of residences and schools.”
Verbiage was at the heart of the case - specifically, the ambiguity in the state’s definition of a restricted zone as anywhere within 1000 feet of the real property of a school or any property which “supports” a school.
Cooperating attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island demonstrated that the definition of “support” is defined in various ways by the State and individual school districts, ranging from publicly-owned properties (such as recreation facilities used by school athletic teams), administrative buildings, and even vacant schools. Judge McConnell agreed, identifying no fewer than three different definitions of “school” and “supporting” property, making it impossible to delineate a thousand foot radius.
The 2015 injunction was filed by the ACLU on behalf of six plaintiffs who would have been forced to move as a result of the expanded restrictions; the lawsuit mentions that plaintiffs were given only 36 hours notice that they would have to relocate or face felony charges. In their efforts to comply, the plaintiffs were unable to obtain any information from the State regarding exactly where they would be permitted to move.
In its conclusion, the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to place the burden of determining where precisely the thousand foot radius would end directly on the offenders themselves, noting that if the State itself failed to come to a clear definition of terms despite having “law enforcement, school officials, and attorneys collaborating to make precise individual determinations on these boundaries, how could an ordinary person ever be expected to faithfully follow this process, let alone come to the same conclusion about where the boundaries lie?”
Impact on homeless
The original injunction noted that several of the plaintiffs, some of whom are home-owners, would likely be forced to seek out homeless shelters if the statue was allowed to stand. This presented a new difficulty, as there is only one homeless shelter in Rhode Island not located within a thousand feet of a school: Harrington Hall in Cranston. In addition to only having a capacity of 112 beds, Harrington Hall is designated as a “housing-focused shelter,” meaning that it is not designed to serve as a long-term residence for those legally unable to secure lodgings elsewhere.
House of Hope noted that they were “already experiencing significant overcrowding at Harrington Hall… Creating a situation that forces more people into homelessness without providing any alternative for shelter and services is intolerable.”
Given Rhode Island’s diminished housing market, the residency restrictions seemed likely to further contribute to the state’s surging homelessness rates. The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless issued a statement in support of the 2015 injunction, stating that the new regulations “not only impose[d] a stronger barrier to overcome to help homeless shelter residents obtain housing, but threaten[ed] to increase the number of shelter residents by eliminating the stable housing they have and causing them to enter an already overcrowded homeless shelter system.”
In their statement, the advocacy group argued that “the three most important factors in reducing sex offender recidivism are stable housing, gainful employment, and comprehensive treatment… We encourage public policies that keep constituents in safe and affordable housing where more challenging goals - such as employment and treatment - can more effectively be addressed.”
Homelessness is not only a problem for the sex offenders themselves: it also complicates the police’s efforts to monitor them. Warwick’s Chief Connor notes that the city has enjoyed a 100% compliance rate among its over 170 offenders. Other means of monitoring, including community notifications, will continue to be employed among people most likely to encounter the offender. These efforts are made more difficult when the offender does not have a permanent address, which increases chances of recidivism.
This has even led victim advocacy groups to argue against the restrictions, with Day One saying that such laws have “unintended consequences that decrease public safety [and] cause instability, which may increase the risk of re-offense.”
Indeed, there is no evidence that residency restrictions have had any positive effect on preventing repeat offenses. In an affidavit submitted during a similar case in Massachusetts in 2012, Dr. Jill Levenson noted several studies from across the country indicating that these restrictions have a negligible impact on public safety; in fact, Iowa has actually witnessed a steady increase in child sex crimes since introducing a 2000 foot restriction in 2005. Levenson also noted that the laws can render as much as 95% of a state’s residential housing market as off-limits to offenders.
The focus of such laws does not seem to take into account the statistical reality that sexual offenses overwhelmingly occur in a context in which the perpetrator is familiar to their victim, including family members, neighbors, and educators. Although popular imagination frequently represents sex offenders as strangers attempting to lure children with offers of candy or gifts, this seems to be a holdover from the serial killer panic of the 1970’s and 80’s.
At present, 7% of reported sexual abuse cases involve a perpetrator unknown to the child. The number of sex crimes committed by strangers in school zones is vanishingly small: a study of recidivistic crimes in Wisconsin indicated that residency restrictions would not have prevented a single incident.
Timothy Duffy, the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, suggested that child sexual abuse in this state likely follows a similar pattern. “I’m not aware of any specific incident which prompted the change back in 2015,” he said. “There also hasn’t been any detectable change on campuses since it was expanded, and we certainly haven’t had issues with sex offenders in the community attempting to enter school grounds.”
At the same time, Duffy noted that several school committees in the state are hoping that the case will be appealed. “I know that some administrators would prefer an appeal, just because they welcome the sense of safety that comes with the greater distance,” he said. Warwick School Committee Chairman David Testa said that there “isn’t anything a school district can do to circumvent the court’s decision... it’s up to the legislature to ‘fix’.”
Despite the concern, efforts to protect students might benefit from less of an emphasis on drawing school borders and paying more attention to what actually goes on within them. As mentioned earlier, the overwhelming majority of sex abuse cases involve perpetrators who have earned the victim’s trust prior to offending; as several recent local cases have demonstrated, this frequently includes teachers, coaches, and school staff. A study in 2000 concluded that public school teachers are by far the most overrepresented profession among child abusers, accounting for nearly ⅓ of reported cases (as opposed to 9% for the more frequently maligned professions of clergy or scout leaders). Nationwide, one in ten public school students report being victims of sexual misconduct by an educator, coach, or administrator, with 7% reporting physical sexual contact.
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