Dozens of sex offenders flocked to faded motels and run-down trailer parks. Others are now homeless, sleeping in their vehicles parked in deserted rest areas and empty lots on the outskirts of Iowa’s larger cities.
By Cassondra Kirby, KENTUCKY HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER
These are some of the unexpected and unintended consequences of Iowa’s crackdown on sex offenders — and what could be in store for Kentucky, Linn County Sheriff Don Zeller said. The Linn County department is the second-largest sheriff’s department in Iowa.
"When this law was passed, everyone had the best of intentions," Zeller said. "But this law has not made the communities safer. If anything, it has made living in Iowa less safe."
Last year, Iowa began enforcing a law that barred those convicted of sex crimes involving children from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day-care center. No one was prepared for the unintended consequences of the law, Iowa authorities say. They warn other states about passing such legislation.
In July, Kentucky will begin enforcing a new law banning all registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, day-care centers and developed playgrounds.
Similar to Iowa’s law, Kentucky’s new ban makes the downtown areas of the state’s two largest cities — Lexington and Louisville — virtually off limits to sex offenders. In Fayette County, more than 170 of 256 registered sex offenders will have to move after the law goes into effect. Although authorities in Jefferson County haven’t begun to identify how many of that county’s 766 registered sex offenders will have to move, they say they expect hundreds will be left with nowhere to stay.
Already, sex offenders in a halfway house in Louisville are looking for new living quarters after officials told them they must move. The halfway house, operated by Dismas Charities to help recently released prisoners transition into society, is located near a park. Spokesman Bob Yates said it is disheartening that the offenders’ treatment is being disrupted, but "it’s the law," he said.
"The whole reason for this bill is to protect our kids, and I can find no flaw in that," said Steve Thompson, commander of the crimes against children unit of the Louisville Metro Police Department.
Are there going to be problems implementing the law? "Sure," said Thompson.
When Iowa’s law went into effect, a large portion of the state’s 6,120 registered sex offenders sought shelter anywhere they could, clustering in the few places that met the residency restrictions.
For one unemployed sex offender who moved to Iowa from another state, this meant spending his days in the lobby of the Linn County sheriff’s department and wandering the streets at night until deputies could help him find a place that complied with restrictions, Zeller said.
He said others park their vehicles in dusty rest stops where they settle down for the night. Twenty-six sex offenders now live in the Ced-Rel Motel, which sits amid cornfields on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids.
"When you come to this motel from out of town, you may not realize that 97 percent of it is made up of sex offenders," Zeller said. "You may be oblivious to that and if you have children, you may let them go get a pop alone. Rather than making a safe environment, we have made a more hostile environment for people to live in."
But perhaps even more disturbing are the large number of sex offenders who have simply vanished, authorities say. About 350 of the sex offenders on Iowa’s registry are now listed as "whereabouts unconfirmed," according to the online registry. A year ago, there were only about 150 such offenders, Zeller said. And dozens more list their address as "homeless" or under one of the state’s bridges.
In Linn County, Zeller said he knew where about 90 percent of sex offenders were living before the law took effect. Now he knows where only about half live.
Zeller said the Linn County sheriff’s department spends 60 or 70 hours a week just dealing with sex offenders since the law passed.
"It’s a mess," said Don Vrotsos, chief deputy in the sheriff’s office of Dubuque County, Iowa. Thirty of the county’s 110 registered sex offenders were forced to move because of the new law. "We have people giving us false addresses and saying they have moved to a certain location when they have not," Vrotsos said. "We are losing people."
He said about 12 of the county’s sex offenders are on the run, not bothering to supply a new address when they were forced to move.
"I am not a sympathizer with sex offenders or anything like that, but this law is just unrealistic," Vrotsos said. "We would rather know where people are living than have these restrictions."
Support for Iowa’s law
But some Iowa officials support the law.
Despite concerns that the restrictions are making it difficult for sex offenders to find places to live, Sen. Larry McKibben said the law is a good one.
"People are much more aware of where their children are, the neighborhoods they are in, those type of things," said McKibben, a Republican and chairman of a task force that reviewed the law this year. "I think — not only in Iowa, but nationally — there is an increased awareness of sex offenders, and parents are becoming a great deal more cautious about where their children are."
Despite the pitfalls seen in Iowa, lawmakers in other states seem to agree with McKibben and have introduced a flurry of similar legislation in states across the country. The rush is fueled by recent highly publicized cases where children were victims, including the February 2005 rape and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped from her Florida home by a convicted sex offender.
Some lawmakers say these restrictions are a step in the right direction in keeping sexual predators away from children.
"What we intended to do was create barriers … to keep these predators away from where these children will be," said Kentucky Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, who was secretary of the state’s Justice Cabinet until last week and successfully pushed for the residency restrictions for sex offenders.
Others say there are key differences between the Iowa and Kentucky laws that could prevent some of the problems that Iowa has seen.
Because Kentucky bans offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, developed parks and child-care centers (instead of Iowa’s 2,000 feet), there will be more places where offenders still can live.
"We won’t know until we get to that date, but I still feel like the community has a lot of opportunities for offenders to decide to reside," said Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt.
When crafting this law, officials looked at some of the issues Iowa was having and decided the 1,000-foot restriction was a reasonable one, Pence said.
"Pedophiles are a different type of offender; they prey upon the very weakest of our society and they are highly likely to repeat their offenses," he said. "I don’t believe we have heard the last of what we are going to do to protect our children …"
Is proximity a factor?
But others argue that there is little evidence to suggest a connection between where offenders live and whether they are likely to reoffend. A 2004 study by the Colorado Department of Public Safety found that sex offenders who reoffend were scattered throughout their communities and did not live any closer to schools or child-care centers than those sex offenders who did not reoffend, according to information provided by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a non-profit based in Oregon.
A similar study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections in 2003 found that how close a sex offender lives to schools or parks was not a factor in whether the person reoffended, according to the association. Sex offenders were more likely to go to other neighborhoods, where they could pick out victims without being recognized.
And many experts say residency restrictions on sex offenders could inadvertently make communities less safe.
Pushing sex offenders to the outskirts of towns removes them from their jobs, treatment, family and other forms of support that strengthen their chances for rehabilitation. There is also less police presence in the rural parts of these counties and fewer watchful eyes, authorities say.
Some fear such laws also create a false sense of security, making parents think their children are safe at playgrounds, schools or child-care centers. Many of the laws, including Kentucky’s, do nothing to prevent sex offenders from visiting the places where children congregate, said Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"Measures that take into account the mobility of these offenders, such as activity and employment restrictions, may be more effective," Atwell-Davis said.
Some states have implemented such legislation.
Georgia not only prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of any area where minors gather, it also prevents sex offenders from loitering in such areas. The Georgia law also says sex offenders may not be employed by any business that is located within 1,000 feet of places where minors congregate.
Although Kentucky’s law does not address loitering, Fayette County recently passed an ordinance that also prohibits sex offenders from loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, child-care centers, parks, playgrounds and pools.
In Wisconsin, officials are supervising 29 sex offenders convicted of multiple offenses with a two-piece electronic tracking device. If offenders enter restricted areas — such as school zones — officials will be alerted, said Melissa Roberts, director of sex offender programs with Wisconsin’s department of corrections.
Because of Iowa’s experience, Wisconsin chose not to implement restrictions on where sex offenders can live.
Wisconsin is in the process of placing an additional 200 offenders on the tracking system, Roberts said. The tracking system, which uses GPS technology, costs between $9 and $12 per person. The state foots the bill, but the legislature has given officials permission to collect money from offenders, Roberts said.
Kentucky looked into purchasing the technology, but decided against it mainly because of costs, Pence said.
As more states begin to look at such legislation, some worry about whether the laws violate the rights of sex offenders.
"It does raise some civil liberties concerns and that’s especially troubling when it doesn’t appear that these sorts of restrictions work," said Lili Lutgens, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Kentucky. Lutgens said the Kentucky ACLU hasn’t decided whether it will challenge the new law’s constitutionality.
The ACLU in Iowa did challenge the 2,000-foot restriction when it passed in 2002. A federal judge ruled the law unconstitutional, but a three-judge appeals panel overturned the ruling. Iowa began enforcing the law in September 2005.
Laws such as the one in Kentucky also raise concerns because every sex offender is treated the same, regardless of the crime committed, authorities say.
"When people hear the word sex offender, they automatically think child molester, but that’s not true," said Zeller, the Linn County sheriff. "If you got drunk and were convicted of indecent exposure, you are a heck of a lot different and should be treated differently than a person who has molested a young child."
Zeller said he would like to see sex offenders ranked by the seriousness of their crimes. "We would be able to better concentrate on these individuals, rather than check on everybody," he said.
The Linn County sheriff’s department has posted a color-coded map on its Web site that shows where sex offenders live and whether their victims were younger or older than 18.
"Ideally, you would like to put them in a boat and send them to an island," Zeller said. "The problem is, they are a part of society and we have to deal with them. Nobody wants sex offenders living next to them, but they have to live someplace."