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State courts begin to challenge sex offender residency restrictions

Like all other states, Wisconsin has detailed laws that place both requirements and restrictions on convicted sex offenders. In addition to requiring them to register publicly as offenders, state legislators have passed restrictions on where offenders can live and what kinds of jobs they can and cannot have.

The public outrage surrounding sex crimes may be legitimate, but the public hysteria and fear surrounding sex offenders is unsupported by evidence. Yet no politician ever lost an election by promising to push for tougher sex offender laws. Critics of sex offender restrictions continue to argue that these increasingly harsh laws may actually be eroding public safety rather than strengthening it.

Residency restrictions and offender registration requirements are leading to unintended consequences which could actually put the public at greater risk. These include:

  • Lengthy registries that fail to differentiate between types of offenders and fail to specify whether any given offender is dangerous (likely to reoffend and against whom)
  • Inciting public unrest by alerting the public of too many sex offenders without specifying the level of danger they pose (which may be no danger at all)
  • Forcing convicted sex offenders to live apart from their families, which can take away an often invaluable source of support and stability
  • Barring sex offenders from most or all available public housing, making it much more likely that they will become homeless or forced into other unstable living situations
  • Taking away sources of stability and opportunities for reintegration that would make it far easier for convicted sex offenders to become productive members of society

A recent editorial in the New York Times lists several examples of residency laws that have recently been struck down by state Supreme Courts. In some cases, these laws violate state Constitutions. In one case, a state's highest Court argued that residency restrictions may actually be a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Similar to the draconian drug laws we mentioned in last week's post, sex offender laws may be doing more harm than good.

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