from the November 29, 2007 edition:
Last week, Georgia's supreme court became the first high court in the US to overturn a state law that restricts areas where former sex offenders may live. More than half the states have such laws, and many amount to banishment. Perhaps this decision will nudge politicians to reconsider these laws.
The Georgia case wasn't argued on the emerging view that the residency bans are counterproductive. Rather, it turned on an unusual application of the Fifth Amendment, which says the government may not take private property without just compensation.
The case concerned Anthony Mann. In 2002, he pled no contest to "indecent liberties with a child," then served four months in jail, followed by probationary supervision. In 2003, he married and bought a home in Georgia. Mr. Mann made sure it did not lie within 1,000 feet of any area where minors gather as defined by the state.
But a day-care center moved to within 1,000 feet of the Manns. His probation officer said he must move or face arrest. Mann sued, arguing the law was unconstitutional because it amounted to an illegal "taking" of private property.
The state supreme court unanimously agreed, adding that Mann faced repeated uprooting. This time, a day-care center broke the 1,000-foot barrier, the court found. Next time it could be a playground, a school bus stop, a skating rink.
The ruling voided the residency part of Georgia's sex-offender law. The decision, though, may not have much legal impact outside the state. Most state residency bans aren't as severe, and the case rests uniquely on property rights.
But the ruling will do well if it persuades lawmakers that blanket residency bans are no response to public fears stemming from tragic, high-profile cases of convicted child predators repeating their crimes.
Such fears are understandable but misplaced. About 80 to 90 percent of child sexual abuse occurs with a family member or someone a child knows. And sex offenders have among the lowest recidivism rates of any class of criminals. Yet sweeping residency restrictions that focus on "stranger-danger" have multiplied in states and cities.
Several studies show no correlation between child sex offenses and where perpetrators live. Law enforcers now argue that bans make things worse. Zones overlap, ruling out living possibilities in urban areas. Offenders are forced into rural America, far from jobs, treatment, and family, which provide stability and rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, many bans don't distinguish between a child rapist and an offender who had consensual sex as a teen. There are 14,500 people on Georgia's sex-offender registry; about 40 of them are labeled "predators." Yet the ban covered them all. States report that bans have forced thousands of ex-offenders into homelessness and caused them to no longer register.
Politicians can respond to public anxiety through greater education about warning signs of abuse by family and others whom kids trust. They can focus resources on serious offenders who may repeat.
Instead of passing blanket laws that include all ex-offenders, they should leave the job of determining where such people should live to the professionals who know these cases and who have made these determinations in the past – probation officers and treatment providers.