Was the opinion issued Friday by the Iowa Supreme Court an expansion or a clarification of the state's existing residency requirements for sex offenders? At the end of the day, according to some members of law enforcement, it doesn't matter one way or another.
"The law does little to protect children and young adults," said a veteran Iowa Sex Crimes Task Force leader who requested a name not be used. "It was a 'warm fuzzy' law that made lawmakers look good, and let parents breathe easier. All it really does is provide a false sense of security. It's a farce that's difficult to enforce and probably has the end result of making the general public less safe."
On Friday the Iowa Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the state's residency law for sex offenders that requires those convicted of crimes with a minor to live at least 2,000 feet away from a school or child care facility. The case involved Polk County resident Floyd Wright, who was convicted of statutory rape in 1977. Wright served his sentence but never had to be listed on the state's sex offender registry because his offense took place nearly 20 years before the registry existed.
When the building Wright lived in was sold, he was forced to move to a new location. Since he was on probation for driving while barred, Wright informed his probation officer of the address change. It was the probation officer who informed Wright that the 1977 offense would prohibit him from moving to the new location, which was within the 2,000 foot buffer.
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Wright filed suit in district court on the grounds that the residency restriction did not apply to him because he was never required to be on the Iowa Sex Offender Registry. He also argued that the residency requirement violated his constitutional right to find adequate and reasonable housing.
The district court ruled that the vague law included all who had ever been convicted of sex crimes with a minor. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the district court ruling on appeal and added that Wright's constitutional claims were moot, given that he could live in areas not covered by the residency restrictions and continue to engage in many community events and activities.
"In my experience the sex offender residency restrictions have had the opposite of the intended affect," the officer said. "Our best defense against individuals with a higher re-offense risk assessment is to know where they are within the community. Because the residency requirement often severely limits available housing, many sex offenders — even some required by law to be on the registry — are choosing not to report their current location."
Because the law was written to include all sex offenders, even those who were convicted several years ago or those who have been dropped from the registry, the officer said that landlords and law enforcement are left with few tools to enforce the residency restriction.
"Anyone can view the Iowa Sex Offender Registry, and I know many landlords within the required buffer zones do check for potential renters on it," the officer said. "How does a landlord or a parent check if the offender isn't required to register? When we do find offenders living in restricted areas, it is often a result of a secondary offense — drug possession, disorderly house."
When asked who could be held liable if someone convicted of a sex crime against a minor moved into a restricted area and then committed another offense against a minor, the officer couldn't provide an answer.
"I don't know," the officer said. "The perp, of course, would bear the criminal burden. But, I don't know if there is grounds for a civil suit against the property owner or against local jurisdiction. That's another question for the court."
It was many of these same types of concerns that led Iowa County Attorneys Association Executive Director Corwin Ritchie to issue a statement against sex offender residency restrictions in December 2006. Citing statistics that 80 percent to 90 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by a relative or acquaintance; research showing no correlation between residency restrictions and reduction of sex offenses against children; and observations by law enforcement that residency restrictions cause offenders to become homeless, change residences without notice, register false address or disappear, Ritchie argued that the restriction should be replaced with "more effective measures that do not produce the negative consequences that have attended the current statute."
The more effective measures, according to the ICAA statement, are:
- A statute creating defined protected areas that sex offenders would be prohibited from entering except in limited and safe circumstances. Such areas might include schools and child care facilities. Entrance to these areas would be allowed only for activities involving the offender's own child and only with advance notice and approval.
- The restriction should cover offenses against "children" (under age 14) rather than "minors" (under age 18).
- The statute should specifically preempt local ordinances that attempt to create additional restrictions on sex offenders.
- Any restriction that carries the expectation that it can be effectively enforced must be applied to a more limited group of offenders than is covered by the current residency restriction.
- Sex offender treatment both inside and outside of prison should be fully funded and improved.
- Measures should be enacted that aim at keeping all young people safe from all offenders. This should include programs that focus on the danger of abuse that may lie within the child's family and circle of acquaintances.
- Recognize that child safety from sex offenses is not amendable to simple solutions by creating a Sex Offender Treatment and Supervision Task Force to identify effective strategies to reduce child sex offenses.
"These observations of Iowa prosecutors are not motivated by sympathy for those committing sex offenses against children, but by our concern that the legislative proposals designed to protect children must be both effective and enforceable," Ritchie wrote. "Anything else lets our children down."
Parents who worry about sex offenders harming their children should do at least two things, according to the Sex Crimes Task Force officer: "Parents need to consider that sex offenders don't just sit, looking out their front window, and waiting for a child to walk by. They are members of the community and are perfectly capable of getting in a car or on public transportation and traveling to places throughout the city or neighboring city. Parents also need to understand that people who sexually abuse children don't have 'a look' or 'a way' about them. Most children aren't snatched from a public place. Unfortunately, most sexually abused children suffer the crime at the hands of someone known to them."
While the Supreme Court action clarified which sex offenders are restricted by the current residency requirements, it did not impact those sex offenders who lived within the "safe zones" prior to the law being passed. Those sex offenders, under "grandfathering," can continue to live at their current residences, regardless of proximity to protected facilities.