a bird and a bottle

Whatever Happened to the Finality of Time Served?
April 9, 2007, 8:12 am
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news

I’ve written before about post-incarceration penalties for certain offenders, particularly sex offenders, whom society seems to believe are unable to be rehabilitated. Some states are civilly committing certain sex offenders once they have finished serving their prison sentences — a move that may or may not be constitutional since it imposes continued punishment on a person even once he has successfully completed the sentence imposed on him by a judge or jury.

In our societal zest to protect children and to demonize those who might have at one point harmed a child, we are making it impossible for those who commit sex offenses, serve their time, and are released, to live. There are the civil commitment laws mentioned above, as well as the more familiar ordinances that bar sex offenders from living within 2500 feet (1/2 mile more or less) of a school or a playground or a church or a park or pretty much anywhere a child might ever go.

The result? Convicted sex offenders have no place to go when they are released. A case in point from yesterday’s NY Times:

Five convicted sex offenders are living under a noisy highway bridge with the state’s grudging approval because an ordinance intended to keep predators away from children has made it nearly impossible for them to find housing.

The conditions are a consequence of laws prohibiting sex offenders from living near schools, parks and other places children gather. Miami-Dade County’s 2005 ordinance says sex offenders must live at least 2,500 feet from schools.


The five men, who live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, are the only known sex offenders authorized to live outdoors in Florida, said Gretl Plessinger, a State Corrections Department spokeswoman.

“This is not an ideal situation for anybody, but at this point we don’t have any other options,” Ms. Plessinger said. “We’re still looking. The offenders are still actively searching for residences.”

These men have not been able to find any place to live in all of Miami-Dade county because of the 2500-feet law. There’s nowhere that’s not within 2500 feet of some prohibited place. The results range from the sad to the absurd:

The men must stay at the bridge from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. because a parole officer checks on them nearly every night….

They have fishing poles to catch food, cook with small stoves, use battery-powered televisions and radios and keep their belongings in plastic bags.

Javier Diaz, 30, who arrived this week, said he had trouble charging the tracking device he is required to wear because there were no power outlets nearby. Mr. Diaz was sentenced in 2005 to three years’ probation for lewd and lascivious conduct involving a girl under 16….

Javier Diaz said he and the other men feared for their lives, especially because of “crazy people who might try to come harm sex offenders.”

“You just pray to God every night,” he said, “so if you fall asleep for a minute or two, you know, nothing happens to you.”

Of course, tough on crime folks, like the law’s sponsor, whom the Times article quotes, believe they are protecting kids. Perhaps there is a negligible decrease in incidences of child sex abuse because of the distance laws (I haven’t seen any numbers), but I doubt there’s any substantial change. Instead, these laws magnify the failings of the criminal justice system. In a day when incarceration is not at all about rehabilitation, what is society supposed to do with the non-rehabilitated offenders it wanted off of the street so badly it had to lock them up?

Whatever the answer, it’s certainly not robbing men and women who have served their time of all of their civil rights – of their basic humanity and the ability to live with a roof over their heads. I write a lot about giving convicted felons back the vote, but at this point, and for this subset of ex-offenders, I’d settle for a door.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

makes you wonder how they came up with the 2,500 ft number. i’d be willing to bet that this was exactly the intention of the lawmakers.

Comment by maxwell

It’s a good point…and I don’t doubt it for a second. This is NIMBY at its most base, and at its worst.

Comment by bean

Such a law would make sense, if there were some fundamental divide between sex offenders and non-sex offenders. That’s basically the evolutionary-psychological theory of rape: it’s an inborn, biological tendency in men, so the best we can do is put barriers between those men in which it’s heightened and potential victims.

The problem is, neither that theory nor the minimal theorizing you need to do to explain such a policy has any empirical backing. I think psychologists have identified such an inborn pathology in pedophiles, but a) that pathology is treatable in a way that causes recidivism rates to crater, and b) most sex offenders target adults. No similar pathology has been identified for non-pedophiliac sex offenders. Rates of sexual assault rise and fall with the rates of other violent crimes rather than with those of any stimulus that could plausibly cause potential offenders to go out and rape someone. The US rape rate dropped 50% between 2000 and 2003; if that underlying theory were true, it would mean that there are hundreds of thousands of latent rapists in American society, ready to prey on innocent people given some unspecified trigger.

Comment by Alon Levy

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