Over-Reacting to Sex Offenders in the Community

October 6, 2015

azZ3rAb94b9cAAVQZEjgWUaQXLp545bQJDBR4hAiZ9oThe Providence Journal published an excellent article on Sunday about an ill-conceived law that is about to take effect in Rhode Island. The law increases the residency restrictions for sex-offenders living near public or private schools.  As the story illustrates, the seemingly-small change from a 300-foot restriction to 1,000 feet means that “just a few slivers of the city” will remain open for residency. This policy will displace many people who have been living in the community without incident, it will make it difficult for them to find any place to live, it will probably create homelessness, and it will certainly marginalize people who we should be trying to reintegrate into the community. There is no evidence that it will increase public safety. Rather, it is likely to decrease it. It is, in short, terrible public policy.

Unfortunately, it has political support. These kinds of laws provide an easy opportunity for politicians to appear “tough” on sex offenders without actually doing anything about the problem. They also provide an opportunity for those who promote the witch-hunt narrative to ignore all of the significant ways in which the criminal justice system is lenient when it comes to sex offenders. As argued in my book:

The paradox of the contemporary sex offender in America is that we treat the group with leniency in many ways–failing to report suspicions, rallying around “upstanding” defendants, and meting out lenient punishments on many occasions–but we overreact about their release from prison (Cheit, p. 374).

Residency restrictions like this should be eliminated. At the same time, those who characterize our social and legal responses to sex offenders as “highly punitive” should recognize that this is not true in the criminal justice system in general. It is time to address both problems.