Old Orchard Beach is considering placing restrictions on where sex offenders can live in the seaside, southern Maine community. While such restrictions could make residents and visitors feel safer, registries and limits on where offenders can live and work haven’t been shown to make much difference in their two-decade history. Instead, a heightened focus on treatment and rehabilitation would likely be more effective at reducing the horrific crime of sex abuse.
Under the ordinance to be considered by the Old Orchard Beach Town Council next month, sex offenders would be prohibited from living within 750 feet of the beach, parks and schools. Many Maine communities, including Bangor and South Portland, have similar restrictions. Such proposals are often praised by parents and other residents as a way to protect children.
Research, however, shows this is not the case. First, children are much more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know, a family member or other trusted adult. In nearly half of sex abuse cases in which the victim was a child and the perpetrator was convicted and imprisoned, the child was the prisoner’s own son or daughter or other relative, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2003.
Further, sex offenders have a low re-offense rate. About 5 percent of sex offenders who spent time in prison commit another sex crime within three years. The rate is lower — 3.3 percent — for those whose victim was a child, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
It is worth noting that sex crimes are underreported and many victims and their families do not pursue prosecution.
However, when someone has been incarcerated for such crimes, including them on a list of offenders once released — most states, such as Maine, have a publicly accessible registry online — can make it difficult for the person to find a job and a place to live. Additional residency restrictions often push these people, mostly men, further to the fringes of society.
Residency restrictions can make it more difficult for offenders to access treatment and to remain connected to their families, who typically offer support during their rehabilitation and transition back into society.
They also force offenders from cities with restrictions to neighboring communities or into rural areas, where there are fewer services and job opportunities.
The police chief in Saco says he is keeping a close eye on what happens with the proposed ordinance in neighboring Old Orchard Beach. If it results in an increase in sex offenders living in Saco, that city may have to consider an ordinance of its own, he said.
In some cases, such restrictions have increased homelessness among offenders who have been released from prison. In Miami, for example, more than 100 sex offenders were living under a bridge in 2007, the result of some of the strictest regulations in the country limiting where they could live. After lawsuits and national news coverage, the homeless were slowly moved to trailer parks and other housing.
The strict law, however, stayed in place, and many of the Julia Tuttle Causeway inhabitants are believed to be homeless again.
The crimes sex offenders commit are horrid, and their victims will long bear the scars of their abuse. But imposing limits that force sex offenders into homelessness or conditions that make it more difficult for them to rehabilitate and become productive members of society does make the rest of us safer.