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Where Should Sex Offenders Live?

The US has a huge population of sex offenders to keep track of – a number greater than the entire population of Alaska.

Here in my country, Canada, is it impossible to find out how many sex offenders live in my community. I would like to know but, officially at least, it is none of my business. I do know that there are just over 400 sex offenders in my province of under one million people and about 16,300 nationally. That works out to about 48 sex offenders per hundred thousand people in the population.

To me that sounds like a lot. But those numbers pale in comparison to the number of registered sex offenders in the US: 728,435 in 2009. This number implies that for every community of a 100,000 people there are is an average of 237 registered sex offenders.  

Now, I don’t think the US has more perverts per capita than Canada. This difference is more likely to do with what type of behavior lands someone on the registry and how long offenders stay on the registry before being removed. 

The point is that the US has a huge population of sex offenders to keep track of – a number greater than the entire population of Alaska. The government could send them all to live in Alaska, which might take care of the problem, but I think current residents would complain, never mind their Canadian neighbors in British Columbia.

The point of the registry is to reduce the probability of a known sex offender from re-offending. Laws on how the registry is used vary from county to county, and state to state, but most include residential restrictions (for example, prohibiting offenders from living near schools and playgrounds), and limitations on how many offenders can live in one neighbourhood to prevent clustering, like the Palace Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg, Florida, where nearly half of the residents are sex offenders.

There are two new papers that ask the question: Where should sex offenders live? It is a very good question when the cost of monitoring offenders is high and the consequences of re-offending are serious. 

The first paper finds the following result: Registered sex offenders currently tend to live in neighborhoods that are “socially disorganized”.* These neighborhoods tend to have high crime rates, a large transient population, poorer socioeconomic status and a largely disenfranchised population. 

What is interesting is that rather than finding that sex offenders are forced into these neighborhoods because their status makes it difficult to find housing and employment, they find that offenders prefer these neighborhoods even when they are restricted (i.e., sex offenders are prohibited from living there) or when there are better alternative neighborhoods available (for example, ones with publicly available housing).

Seventy-seven percent of sex offenders live in socially disorganized neighborhoods – 37% in those that are unrestricted and 40% in those that are restricted.  

There are two possible explanations as to why they find this result. The first is that in socially disorganized neighborhoods parents and caregivers fail to supervise their children as carefully as in other neighborhoods – creating more potential victims. The second is that sex offenders find it easier to hide their registration status in a neighborhood that has a largely uneducated and transient population. 

The important policy implication here is that limited government resources that are available to protect potential victims should be directed to these neighborhoods. This includes not only public awareness and education for residents, but also resources for sex offenders that reduce the probability of recidivism: tracking, monitoring, mental health support and other rehabilitation resources. 

There is another important lesson here: Authorities that are searching for sex offenders that have disappeared off the radar might consider concentrating their efforts in these disorganized neighbourhoods.

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The second paper has an equally interesting result: The authors find that allowing some level of clustering of sex offenders might decrease the rate of recidivism.** No one wants to live in a neighbourhood that is saturated with sex offenders, except possibility other sex offenders. But by placing restrictions on the number of offenders that can live in one area some are forced out into more suburban and rural areas where they have little supervision and no access to rehabilitation resources. 

If sex offenders collect in specific neighborhoods, available resources need not be geographically dispersed and can be used more efficiently. There is even some evidence that sex offenders in shared living conditions are less likely to re-offend and will, to some degree, police themselves by notifying authorities when roommates engage in prohibited behavior.

So, maybe Alaska isn’t the solution. But it seems that spreading the risk over a wide geographic region is not the solution either. Not if the goal is to reduce the number of victims of sex crimes. 

* Grubesic, Tony, and Alan Murray. “Methods to Support Policy Evaluation of Sex Offender Laws.” Papers in Regional Science 89.3 (2010): 669-84.  

** Mack, Elizabeth A., and Tony H. Grubesic. “Sex Offenders and Residential Location: A Predictive-Analytical Framework.” Environment and Planning A 42.8 (2010): 1925-42. 


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