Wrongheaded Laws Mean Sex Offenders Live Under Bridges

The red arrow at left shows the only place in Miami where sex offenders can legally live — under a bridge. Is isolation like this necessary because all sex offenders are so dangerous? Turns out, not so much.

As Lisa of Sociological Images explains, Miami sex offenders are prohibited from living within 2,500 feet of "schools, parks, churches, or any place where children might congregate." Which means everywhere, except "under a causeway in the middle of Biscayne Bay." This is an extreme example, but many states place harsh restrictions on where sex offenders can live. They're meant to protect children from rapists and pedophiles, but, according to an article in the new Economist, that's not who all sex offenders are.

The piece says 5 states brand people as sex offenders for visiting prostitutes, 29 register teens who have consensual sex with other teens, and 13 grant sex offender status to people convicted of public urination. The Economist tells the sad story of Wendy Whitaker of Georgia, who gave her 16-year-old boyfriend a blow job in a theater when she was 17, and ended up on a sex offender list for life. Oral sex isn't illegal anymore in Georgia, but that doesn't remove her from the registry — she was evicted from her home and her husband lost his job as a result of her status.

The Economist points out that filling sex offender registries with public urinaters or unlucky teens makes it hard for people browsing the lists to pick out dangerous offenders. What's not hard, often, is printing a picture of an offender from an online list and posting it all over town. One study found that 65% of registered sex offenders "pose little threat," but most of the ones the Economist interviewed report receiving harassment.

Yet there's little evidence that sex offender registries do anything. The Economist writes that, "a study by Kristen Zgoba of the New Jersey Department of Corrections found that the state's system for registering sex offenders and warning their neighbours cost millions of dollars and had no discernible effect on the number of sex crimes." Similarly, draconian restrictions on where sex offenders can live and work may do more harm than good. Another study found that lack of housing increased recidivism, while having a steady job decreased it.

CNN says the men under the bridge in Miami were in fact convicted of abusing children. But Lisa points out:

In addition to the human rights concerns, there is a concern that the living conditions may actually increase the chances of recidivism. Living under a bridge: (1) is arguably even less enjoyable than prison, (2) smothers hope of ever reintegrating into society, and (3) is not really conducive to self-improvement.

Of the Miami sex offenders, CNN's John Zarrella says, "few people have any sympathy for their plight." But you don't have to excuse their actions to recognize that forcing them into the middle of a bay isn't the best punishment. And you don't have to condone pedophilia to realize that lesser crimes, like urinating in public or having sex with a fellow teenager, shouldn't doom someone to a life of stigma.

Unintended Consequences: Where Can Sex Offenders Live? [Sociological Images]
Unjust And Ineffective [Economist]