Public-Place Laws Tighten Rein on Sex Offenders

By Ian Lovett

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Convicted sex offenders are barred from surfing at the famous pier in this Orange County city.

In nearby Dana Point, they are prohibited from casting a fishing line in the harbor.

And if they wander into a public park in Mission Viejo, they could be shipped back to jail for six months, following the City Council’s vote this year to ban them from a host of places where children congregate.

“We need to protect our kids,” the Orange County district attorney, Tony Rackauckas, had told the Mission Viejo City Council. “The danger is very real.”

Orange County finds itself at the enter of a new wave of laws restricting the movement of sex offenders. The county government and a dozen cities here have banned sex offenders from even setting foot in public parks, on beaches and at harbors, rendering almost half the parks in Orange County closed to them. Ten more cities are considering similar legislation.

And Orange County is far from alone. In recent years, communities around the country have gone beyond regulating where sex offenders can live and begun banning them outright from a growing list of public places.

From North Carolina to Washington State, communities have designated swimming pools, parks and school bus stops as “child safety zones,” off limits to some sex offenders. They are barred from libraries in half a dozen Massachusetts cities, and from all public facilities in tiny Huachuca City, Ariz.

“Child safety zones are being passed more and more at the city and county level,” said Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It’s becoming more and more restrictive. They’re not only limiting where sex offenders can live, but they’re limiting their movement as well.”

The proliferation of such restrictions reflects the continued concerns of parents and lawmakers about potential recidivism among sex offenders. But it has also increasingly raised questions about their effectiveness, as well as their fairness.

Opponents have dismissed “child safety zones” as unenforceable, saying they are designed to make politicians look tough on crime and drive sex offenders from the area, not make children safer.

“These are cheap laws that can be passed to make people feel good,” said Charles P. Ewing, author of “Justice Perverted: Sex Offense Law, Psychology, and Public Policy.”

Irene Pai, a lawyer with the Orange County public defender’s office, said “child safety zones” give parents a false sense of security, punishing many offenders who are not dangerous without actually stopping predators from entering parks.

(To read full article, visit this New York Times link)

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