September 28, 2013

Task force discusses sex offender restrictions

9-28-2013 Florida:

The devastating failures of a state program designed to lock up the most dangerous sex offenders have left the public terrified, said members of a county panel recommending reform of sex offender residency restrictions.

Already, they said, policymakers are hesitant to speak publicly in support of easing laws that prohibit offenders from living inside of buffer zones around schools, playgrounds and day care centers.

Members of the panel — which includes public defenders, prosecutors, police and sex offenders themselves — all agree the restrictions don't promote public safety. In many cases, the restrictions limit housing availability, leaving sex offenders homeless and itinerant.

"It's easier to track individuals when we know where they are," Assistant State Attorney Reid Scott said.

Deputies from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office have said that some of their parole checks are conducted on street corners.

"All of the research says that residency restrictions have no influence on safety," said Carey Haughwout, Palm Beach County public defender.

The Sex Offender Re-entry Task Force meets occasionally to discuss reforms to the way Palm Beach County deals with ex-convicts returning to the community from prisons and jails.

Their meeting Friday focused on the findings of a Sun Sentinel investigation that discovered woeful enforcement of the Jimmy Ryce law, designed to confine those psychologically disposed to re-offend.

The investigation found that these offenders molested 460 children, raped 121 women and killed 14 since the law took effect in 1999. Since the report was published, state lawmakers have rushed to try to strengthen the law.

The group of Palm Beach County advocates agreed something must be done to fix the Ryce law but worried that overzealous legislators, spurred by public fear, may sweep too broadly.

And they insisted the debate over failed screenings under the Ryce law is unrelated to residency restrictions. Offenders bent on harming new victims don't pay attention to the housing buffers, they said. Despite widespread consensus for their cause, reform may be more difficult now, they said.

Many sex offenders come out of prison penniless and abandoned by their families. Many others are stymied in their housing searches. The county has a 2,500-foot restriction, and cities can further restrict residency, leaving a hodgepodge of regulations and very few affordable housing options.

Consequently, a colony of more than 100 sex offenders has emerged in an abandoned sugar-company town in western Palm Beach County near Pahokee called Miracle Village. Some of the residents were at the meeting Friday.

"When we first moved there, they wanted to hang us," said Pat Powers, director of a ministry group there. "Now the mayor is saying we're an asset to the community."

The sex offenders there have seldom returned to crime — except James Harmon did. Despite living far from others, in a community of peers, he went to Pahokee and killed a woman named Ophelia Redden. Harmon had slipped through the cracks of the Ryce law. ..Source.. by South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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