Bill to Keep Sex Offenders Away From Schools Could Cause ‘Chaos,’ Critics Say
A bill intended to keep convicted sex offenders away from kids would throw the Connecticut’s sex offender registry into “chaos,” according to the state’s Department of Correction.
Included in Senate Bill 1087 is a provision that would prohibit registered sex offenders from residing within 1,000 feet of a school or a child day care center, but according to Eric Ellison, deputy director for parole and community services at the Correction Department, that’s not a feasible, or even desirable, goal.
“In reality, future sex offenders would no longer be allowed to live in major urban areas,” he told members of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee during a public hearing Monday.
Should such a provision be put into law, Ellison said, registered sex offenders would be forced to move away from urban areas and, therefore, treatment programs and support services.
“It would certainly displace thousands of offenders that we are successfully managing at this time,” he said. “It would cause a migration into suburban, rural areas.”
State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said that the desire to keep sex offenders away from school zones is “emotionally satisfying,” though the concerns Ellison raised also make sense.
“We don’t want a permanent class or category of people who are, frankly, living under bridges,” he said.
Ellison argued that the efficacy of residency requirements have been disproven, that it “throws the registry into chaos,” making tracking and management of sex offenders a far more difficult task and actually increasing the risk of additional offenses.
“Housing instability has been known to increase general and sexual recidivism,” he said.
There are currently about 5,800 registered sexual offenders in Connecticut, many of whom live in major, urban areas. For example, a search through the registry for offenders living in Hartford returns 746 individuals. The registry lists 340 individuals living in Bridgeport, 482 living in New Haven, and 262 offenders in New Britain, not including adjacent towns.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Norwich, testified in favor of the bill, saying that if something can be done to keep residents safe, it is the legislature’s responsibility to do so.
“The majority of Connecticut residents believe that sexual violence is a problem in their community,” she said.
In December, Norwich residents spoke en masse to Osten and other legislators expressing displeasure with the number of sex offenders living within the town’s borders. American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney David McGuire told the Judiciary Committee that residency restrictions are “irrational,” which sparked a vociferous debate with state Rep. Emmett Riley, D-Norwich.
“I find that offensive,” Riley said.
The problem, Ellison said, is that most sex offenses against minors are not committed by “predatory” offenders but people known to the victims.
“The research is clear that victims for the most part know their perpetrator, they know their offenders,” he said. “They’re family, they’re friends, they’re those that are in a position of authority over those children.”
He added: “It’s not these predatory offenses that we’re all concerned about. There’s a perception in the general public that they occur routinely and it’s just not the case.”
Ellison’s contention is borne out by a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report titled “Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics.”
“The temporal pattern of sexual assault shows that unlike adults, young juveniles are at highest risk of sexual assault in the hours when meals are served and after school,” that report says. “Rarely were the offenders of young juvenile victims strangers. Strangers were the offenders in just 3 percent of sexual assaults against victims under age 6 and 5 percent of the sexual assault victimizations of youth ages 6 through 11.”
Randall Wallace, a psychologist with the Justice Resource Institute, told committee members about 90 percent of sex crimes committed against children in Connecticut are committed by individuals known to the victim. Residency restrictions, therefore, are actually detrimental, making “appropriate housing and employment” more difficult to obtain.
“It’s been shown over and over again to be ineffective,” he said.
As Wallace wrote in testimony submitted to the committee, “Empirical evidence clearly indicates all key aspects of this bill are overly costly, ineffectual, heighten empirically known risk factors for sexual reoffending, undermine the current effective collaborative supervision system, create an environment for additional trauma to sexual abuse survivors, and mislead the general public about sexual offense risk.”
According to a 2012 report on sex offenders and recidivism issued by the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, “it is important to recognize that individuals who have committed sex offenses do not constitute a single, homogenous population.”
“Together they exhibit a wide range of criminal behaviors that may or may not include violence or contact with other persons,” the report says. “Sex offenders vary by age, ethnicity, and social background. They also vary by their motivations, the nature of their crimes, and by the extensiveness of their non-sex-related criminal histories. As a consequence, the risk, or likelihood, of committing new sex crimes is not consistent across all sex offender types.”