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A Times Editorial

Strict rule actually hurts public safety

While no one wants a registered sex offender living nearby, they have to live somewhere. Where? The answer in Miami-Dade County is under a causeway.

It turns out the only place in the county where many sex offenders are able to find a place to reside and not run afoul of a highly restrictive residency ordinance is underneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway linking Miami to Miami Beach. Restrictions in Pinellas and elsewhere already are creating clusters of sex offender housing, and the extreme situation in Miami-Dade has even onetime advocates reconsidering their support of a tough residency restriction that is politically popular but practically unworkable.

Law enforcement officials say the best way to monitor sex offenders is by giving them a chance to live legally. Miami-Dade doesn't. In 2005 it passed a ban on sex offenders residing within 2,500 feet of places where children gather. That is far more restrictive than Florida law that sets those limits at 1,000 feet. As a result, more than 70 resident sex offenders have ended up living in a shantytown under the causeway, frustrating efforts at tracking and intensive supervision. According to Walter McNeil, secretary of the Department of Corrections, there are "no other options for housing" for this population in the county.

This relegation makes it virtually impossible for local sex offenders to follow the conditions of their probation. For instance, the GPS monitors that some sexual offenders are required to wear have to be regularly recharged, but there are no electrical outlets under the causeway.

Politicians love to pass these sorts of housing distance buffer zones. It makes them look tough on criminals, particularly despised sex offenders. Tampa considered a similarly restrictive ordinance last year but didn't pass it after the city attorney told the City Council there would be unintended consequences that jeopardize public safety.

Sex offenders often don't leave the community when they can find no place to legally live. They become homeless or drift aimlessly, making public notification of their whereabouts effectively impossible. And by forcing sex offenders to live in squalor and removing them from the stability of their families, the likelihood increases that they will commit more crimes.

A suit filed earlier this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida says that Miami-Dade's residency restrictions interfere with the proper operation of Florida's statutory scheme to track and supervise sex offenders. Similar arguments have succeeded elsewhere, including a case involving 2,500-foot residency restrictions in Jacksonville. Now even Ron Book, a lobbyist who led the fight for the residency restrictions in Miami-Dade after his daughter was victimized, tells that the residency restriction should be reduced. As chair of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, he is looking for alternative housing for those sexual predators living under the bridge, and he has asked Gov. Charlie Crist for help on a broader statewide solution.

A crisis in Miami-Dade could help produce a more reasonable approach throughout Florida to monitoring sexual predators, restricting their potential homes and protecting children. The most extreme efforts can produce unintended results, and forcing predators to live in groups under a bridge will not make communities safer.

Strict rule actually hurts public safety 07/29/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 29, 2009 6:11pm]
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