Not in My Bus Stop

The new fad cities can't seem to resist — keeping sex offenders out of every nook and cranny.

"He would yell at the top of his lungs, 'I'm here to check on you, sex offender!'" Mike says. "Then I'd open up the door, and he'd whisper to me, 'If you want this to stop, move. '"

Mike quietly packed up and moved — which is what most other sex offenders in Broward County do.

Jill Levenson, a researcher at Lynn University in Boca Raton, is studying the effect of residence restrictions on registered sex offenders in Broward County. The average Broward sex offender has had to move twice in the past two years, she says. Five of the 59 sex offenders she surveyed had to move seven times or more. Half have had landlords refuse to rent to them. And a fifth of them have been homeless for an average of two months.

The only legal residence available for sex offenders in South Florida
The only legal residence available for sex offenders in South Florida

"Let's face it — housing is a basic human need," Levenson says. "Some of them can't find anyplace to live. Pretty much all of South Florida is off-limits."

"When you draw all the circles around the schools, the day care center, there are only these little slivers left," says Stephen JohnsonGrove, a staff attorney at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, who has argued against residence restrictions.

Some Broward offenders have been told that they live too close to churches and fast-food restaurants with playgrounds or near "parks" that no one knows exist. (Last year, citizens in Pembroke Pines called for the inclusion of golf courses in their city's ordinance.)

But even though Florida's residence restrictions are some of the toughest in the country, no high-profile cases against them have emerged in the state.

"Florida's so aggressive on this issue that I really don't understand why no one has challenged the laws yet," JohnsonGrove says.

The reason, says Barry Butin, a chair of the Legal Panel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Broward, is that so far, courts across the country have shot down attempts to defend sex offenders from residence restrictions.

"The appeals courts have disagreed with the ACLU on this issue," he says. "Either we or every other lawyer known to man has lost these cases."

Passing a law that effectively banishes a whole class of people from an entire city is usually considered a blatant violation of civil rights. But in this case — well, they're sex offenders.

"If three years ago, I had had too much to drink and I ran over a 16-year-old with a car, I would be done with my sentence by now," says Mike, the Broward sex offender. "You don't have to register for the rest of your life with a DUI. There's no murderer database."

"I think that people are so terrified politically with sex offenders that it doesn't matter what the laws are," JohnsonGrove says. "Nobody wants to represent a sex offender."

"It's like defending cockroaches," Mike says. "Nobody will touch it."

Lacorazza's family is hoping that's not true. They're planning to appeal Weston's ruling in the hopes that a sympathetic judge will agree that kicking Lacorazza out of his grandparents' home doesn't help anybody.

"Otherwise, what happens is that he literally has no place to go," Timpanaro says. "The only place where he can live is with me. What do you do with these kids? Just throw them in the street?"

The not-in-my-backyard set would probably say yes. But banishment's track record shows that kicking sex offenders like Mike and Tom Lacorazza to the curb might actually put kids in more danger than letting sex offenders live near their school bus stops.

"There is a belief that if we know where sex offenders live and keep them from living near us, we can prevent future crimes from occurring," Lynn University's Levenson says. "There's really no empirical support of the idea that residence restrictions are an effective way to improve public safety. What we do know is that residence restrictions push sex offenders out of major cities and into rural areas, away from social support and treatment services, where they're more difficult to track and supervise. We also know that a lack of stability and a lack of social support are actually risk factors for criminal recidivism. When people feel like they have nothing to lose, that leads them to desperation and anger."

But city fathers aren't paying attention to Levenson. Just three weeks ago, Tamarac passed a law modifying its 2,500-foot Sexual Predator Ordinance — to add more explicit penalties.

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