CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Thursday, September 26, 2013

McNeal & Warth on Seniors, Housing, and Sex Offense Registration

Mary Helen McNeal and Patricia Warth (Syracuse University College of Law and Center for Community Alternatives) have posted Barred Forever: Seniors, Housing and Sex Offense Registration (Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 22, No. 2, p. 317, 2013) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Since the early 1990s, the federal government, states, and municipalities have enacted a series of laws and restrictions making it increasingly difficult for people convicted of a sex offense to reintegrate into their communities. These laws and restrictions include sex offender registries, community notification requirements, residency restrictions, and statutory bars to employment, public assistance, and housing. An examination of empirical research reveals that recidivism rates decline with age and length of time in the community after conviction, and that community notification policies and residency restrictions are destined to fail because such polices are designed to protect the public against repeat offenders and adults who prey on children unknown to them, but most sexual crimes are committed by first-time offenders, and most crimes against children are perpetrated by people well known to them. Research also demonstrates that stable housing is essential to reintegration into the community for those convicted of sex offenses, and further reduces re-offense rates.

While the research has revealed many flaws in the assumptions underlying sex offender laws, the passage of time has revealed a growing array of unanticipated costs and consequences associated with these laws, such as the difficulties people on sex offense registries face in reuniting with their families and accessing treatment, employment, and stable housing. As our population ages and the sex offense registries continue to expand, more elderly and infirm people are being denied access to housing, including independent housing with supportive services, subsidized housing, and assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. This lack of access to suitable and stable housing has profound implications for seniors and further exacerbates the challenges many seniors already face, including declining health, a sense of isolation, cognitive decline, and insufficient social interaction. 

This article discusses this unintended consequence by exploring the gap between the empirical evidence and the popular perceptions that underlie the laws and policies that prevent seniors from securing appropriate housing. Part I offers an overview and history of the registration and community notification laws enacted since the 1990s, focusing on federal legislation and providing an overview of state and municipal laws that restrict where people convicted of a sex offense can live, concluding with a discussion of the non-legal, social stigma associated with being deemed a “registered sex offender.” Part II discusses the demographics of the population on sex offender registries and explains why this population is growing both in size and in age. It also addresses the various housing options available to the elderly on the registries, particularly those who — because of their medical condition or economic status — are in need of federally subsidized or supportive housing, as well as the housing restrictions and bars they face. Part III examines the empirical research and evidence that has developed over the past twenty years, identifying the inaccurate popular perceptions and assumptions underlying many of the laws and policies previously enacted. Finally, Part IV bridges the gap between the evidence and popular misperceptions by identifying much needed law and policy changes. These policy recommendations capitalize on the wealth of empirical evidence and research, and urge our communities to develop alternative, well-considered policies specifically designed to promote public safety and the successful reintegration of people who have a past sex offense conviction.

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