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Editorial: Sex offender housing restrictions do more harm than good

Of all the constituents that politicians want to help out, sex offenders probably rank at the very bottom of the list. But the New Hampshire Senate should summon the courage to do just that. By helping sex offenders, as strange as it sounds, the Senate will end up making life safer for everyone else.

At issue is legislation that would ban cities and towns from placing broad restrictions on where sex offenders may live. Several communities have attempted such restrictions, and lower-court judges have already struck down two as unconstitutional: one in Franklin and one in Dover. In both cities, local officials wanted to keep convicted sex offenders from living too close to places where children regularly gather: schools, day care centers and playgrounds. Several other communities still have such ordinances on the books, among them Tilton, Sanbornton, Northfield and Boscawen.

The impulse to keep sex offenders away from kids via zoning is completely understandable. But there is strong reason to resist. And there is strong reason to set such policy at the state level, rather than leaving it to individual communities.

A growing body of evidence – gathered not just by civil liberties lawyers, but from law enforcement officers, public officials and child advocacy groups – suggests that residency restrictions are placebo pills at best and counterproductive at worst. Such ordinances give communities a false sense of security while driving sex offenders underground or into rural areas where they can’t access the services that give them the best chance at rehabilitation.

An Iowa study, for instance, showed that sexual-abuse convictions had remained steady since statewide residency restrictions went into effect five years earlier but that the number of sex offenders failing to register their addresses with local police departments, as the law required, had more than doubled.

And a study in the journal Federal Probation draws a clear link between housing instability – an obvious consequence of residency ordinances – and criminal recidivism. Instead, it suggests a strategy of identifying and carefully monitoring the highest risk offenders and creating stable lives for the rest through treatment and access to housing, jobs and services.

In New Hampshire, where most towns are small and housing options that aren’t close to playgrounds and schools are sometimes scarce, such ordinances also have the effect of pushing sex offenders out of one community and into the next in a desperate search for decent housing – hardly fair to them or to those communities.

That’s why state-level legislation makes sense.

The legislation banning communities from enacting or enforcing such residency restrictions has passed the House, but Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro expressed skepticism in an Associated Press interview that it would get through the Senate. “The Senate is going to want to protect kids and other people sexual predators could attack,” Bradley said. “I think getting rid of any kind of residency restrictions – like in proximity of schools and day-care centers – will be a very hard sell for senators, even in the face of a couple of court rulings.”

But the court rulings, which so far do not include the state Supreme Court, are not the best argument to counter Bradley’s fear. More persuasive is that senators who truly want to protect kids and others from attacks from New Hampshire’s 2,500 registered sex offenders, are actually heading in the wrong direction with such restrictions.

When a sex offender has served his sentence, it is in everyone’s interest that he succeed on the outside. Passing this bill would help.

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