A couple months ago here on Rooflines, I wrote about the value of addressing housing challenges that many former prisoners face upon release. Back then, it seemed that Congress might even pass bipartisan criminal justice reform. Sadly, that seems less likely now, but the need to confront the injustices built in to the system are no less urgent.
We have made some progress. HUD has prohibited housing providers from reflexively denying applicants with criminal records. Maryland, with a Republican governor and Democratic legislature, adopted moderate but meaningful reforms. And, perhaps most strikingly, courts in California and Michigan have ruled that residency restrictions that limit where or how close to a school a convicted sex offender can live violate state constitutions, and are too vague or otherwise fail to make sense. Last year, a federal judge ruled that Minnesota’s inability to find housing for offenders effectively extended their sentences illegally. In response to the California ruling, the state announced earlier this year that it would no longer enforce the blanket restrictions that have come to characterize so many of these state rules. Minnesota’s legislature may address some of its challenges in a special session.
Congress, in its 1998 Public Housing reform law, barred individuals on lifetime sex offender registries from federally assisted housing, an approach that at least offered some options to lower-level offenders. Yet far too many states have adopted one-size-fits-all policies that lump all classes of sex offenders together, despite study after study showing that these statutes are ineffective at best.
Wisconsin, perhaps not surprisingly for the state that led the nation in the race to the bottom on welfare “reform,” has seemingly gone out of its way to avoid linking its policy to reality. First, in 2014, Milwaukee came up with a 2,000-foot restriction policy that, in effect, left just 55 homes available to violent and repeat sex offenders. Early this year, Governor Scott Walker signed a bill banning sex offenders from living within 1,500 feet of any school, park, day care center or church in the state. Wisconsin legislators introduced a bill that would have reduced statewide residency restrictions to 1,000 feet, softening the earlier bill. It failed.
These are serious crimes, and they deserve serious policy proposals, but our approaches to housing sex offenders often choose the easy responses at the expense of the effective ones. We need to rethink our approach, and legislators need to take the lead.
The criminal justice system has immense influence on an ex-offender’s ability to work, live, and interact post-release. Treating all sex offenders as one, rather than treating them as individuals therapeutically and programmatically, makes no sense, especially if we are interested in reducing risk, improving lives, and saving money.
So what is going on here? One study of the California restrictions, which effectively eliminated 97 percent of San Diego County’s homes as an option for the state’s sex offenders, found that “there is no evidence that residence restrictions are related to preventing or deterring sex crimes against children.” Indeed, other research has found that restricting proximity to child care or school buildings provides no measurable benefit to public safety.
Of course, none of this should be surprising. First, sex offenders have relatively low recidivism rates compared to other offenders. (One caveat, however, is the low reporting rate of sex offenses.) Even Wisconsin knows this, as the state has reported that offender recidivism of sexual offenses was in the single digits for various timeframes. Other states have drawn similar conclusions. For example, Connecticut officials found even lower rates of such recidivism than Wisconsin found. We also know that sex offenses against children, crimes that many consider to be the most heinous and least forgivable, overwhelmingly involve a victim and perpetrator who are known to each other. Preventing such crimes where the assailant likely has access to private settings, such as a home, is very difficult.
In the three years after California’s restrictions took effect in 2006, homelessness among sex offenders jumped 24-fold. By 2011, nearly one-third of sex offenders on parole in the state were homeless due to the restrictions. Many analysts attribute this rise to the reduction in housing options for ex-offenders who, like many released from prison, would have lived with relatives, even if only temporarily. Too many of these relative’s homes, it seems, were within 2,000 feet of a school or park, making them off limits to the ex-offender. Cutting off the network of family or friends upon reentry is a major blow to rehabilitation.
Of course, if the real point of these laws is to help law enforcement and health providers stay in contact with released sex offenders, provide assistance and generally reduce risk to the community, then having a third of the target population unaccounted for doesn’t seem to be particularly effective policy. Some will argue that homeless offenders can be tracked by GPS. Many states do this, but this approach hardly enables housing stability or ensures access to the variety of services that housing can provide.
Securing housing for ex-offenders is vital to reducing recidivism and to assuring victims and victims’ families that perpetrators comply with parole requirements. States, mostly through the courts, have begun to recognize the real limitation of the non-individual-specific restrictions. Until state legislators act, however, little will change. In our current environment that sees marginalization of unpopular groups as good politics, good policy need not matter. With criminal justice reform in the air and on the airwaves, this is a real lost opportunity.
(Photo credit: pgbailey, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)