As Minnesota lawmakers mull a bill that would authorize local units of government to enact tough new restrictions on where sex offenders can live, its advocates face one major obstacle: finding a single authority in the field who believes it’s a good idea.
At least, that’s the opinion of Mitchell Hamline law professor Eric Janus, who has written extensively on sex offender laws and policies.
“I don’t think you can find any experts — or a person who actually deals with sex offenders — who thinks residency restrictions are effective,” said Janus. “It’s amazing and quite uniform. That goes from Departments of Corrections to county attorneys and prosecutors to state task forces. Everybody says it’s a bad idea. It inhibits re-entry. It inhibits stability. It inhibits supervision. And most likely it increases recidivism.”
While that’s been the consensus among researchers for years, Janus noted, more courts across the country are finding reasons to strike down residency restrictions.
“It hasn’t been unanimous, but there’s been a bit of a tipping point. Ten years ago, the courts more or less always upheld these laws. Now they look at them much more carefully,” said Janus, who cited a spate of decisions in the last year from courts in California, New York and Massachusetts.
Does that mean that the sex offender issue is now less easily wielded as a political cudgel?
Janus ventured hopefully that it might be “a little more difficult to demagogue” these days. In part, he said, that’s because even the mass media has started to recognize that “the easy solutions might make things worse.”
Still, Janus acknowledged, many jurisdictions across the country are still passing residency restrictions and there’s no evidence that’s slowed.
In Minnesota, a recent surge in such ordinances has probably been stoked by the the continuing fight over the release of civilly committed sex offenders from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, Janus said. As a consequence, lawmakers who cast a vote that’s perceived as sympathetic to offenders can probably still probably expect to be hammered in attack ads come election season.
“We’re very vulnerable to that in Minnesota because we have a lot of swing districts and we’re a state that can go either way,” Janus opined.