Last week, a colleague of mine shared a US Department of Justice report on a list-serve to which we both belong (see the report at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/242952.pdf). This report, entitled “An Evaluation of Sexual offender Residency Restrictions in Michigan and Missouri” was completed by Beth M. Huebner, Timothy S. Bynum, Jason Rydberg, Kimberly Kras, Eric Grommon, and Breanne Pleggenkuhle, variously of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Michigan State University, Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis, and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. As the title suggests, these authors report findings associated with their research into the efficacy of residency restrictions on sexual offender risk and re-entry.
Residency restrictions have been a particularly popular means of controlling and containing sexual offenders in the community. Depending on the jurisdiction, the typical approach is to limit the distance within which sexual offenders can legally be regarding schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, or other places children might congregate. Such restrictions have significant impact on where offenders may live, work, or engage in other activities.
On the surface, such practices seem quite reasonable. If someone has engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with a child, then the amount of direct or indirect contact they might have with children should be limited or prohibited. However, as yet, such practices have not been subject to much scientific scrutiny. Moreover, of those investigations of residency restrictions completed to date, the findings suggest that there is little or no effect on outcome—sexual recidivism. Indeed, some have suggested that such restrictions may contribute to reduced social and community stability for released offenders (Levenson & Hern, 2007; Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008; Socia, 2011; Willis & Grace, 2008, 2009), and that this potentially translates into an increase in risk, not the decrease intended. This study, completed in Illinois and Missouri, adds another voice to the chorus of research suggesting that residency restrictions are having little or none of their intended effects.
In order to complete their research, Huebner and associates identified 1,703 sexual offenders in MI and matched them to 1,703 non-sexual offenders. Additionally, they identified 2,265 sexual offenders and 2,265 unmatched but markedly similar non-sexual offenders. The following are key findings noted in the executive summary:
- There was a decline in the number of individuals living in restricted areas, including near schools or daycare centers, but the differences were not statistically significant.
- Analyses of residential patterns did not support previous research which suggests that residency restrictions would lead to large displacement of offenders to rural areas; however, supplemental analyses in Michigan found that sexual offenders – especially child molesters – moved more often relative to comparable non-sexual offenders after the implementation of residency restrictions.
- If residency restrictions have an effect on recidivism, the relationship is small.
- Given the very low base rate of sexual recidivism (3%), a longer period of follow-up would be required to better consider the long-term recidivism patterns of sexual offenders, particularly as they pertain to sexual offense convictions.
Based on their findings, Huebner et al. concluded that residency restrictions had little effect on recidivism. Additionally, they noted that their analyses provided confirmation that such restrictions may lead to reduced reintegration potential for released sexual offenders. They make several policy recommendations:
- Huebner et al. suggest that jurisdictions consider the use of risk assessment instruments when implementing restrictions as a means to identify those offenders most in need of such measures.
- There is a need to evaluate the length of the residency restrictions, considering the potential value-added to community safety when balanced against offender stability.
- Stable housing services should be the central focus of reentry planning, particularly for sexual offender populations.
- More research is needed on the provision of transitional housing.
- Enhanced research is required regarding residential movement patterns of sexual offenders over an extended period of time.
- Efforts are necessary to develop re-entry programming specific to sexual offender populations.
Huebner et al. also make suggestions for future research, including investigation of how residency restrictions might assist in risk management if implemented with that minority of released offenders who are at higher risk. Additionally, they call for additional research regarding the factors that might influence sexual offender desistance; particularly, if residency restrictions might actually increase risk in some cases. Huebner and her associates also suggest that we need better research regarding the costs and benefits of residency restrictions, including both supervision costs and those associated with relocation and collateral consequences for offenders and the communities in which they reside.
Of course, there are many complicated issues associated with the community risk management of persons who have sexually offended. Where they should live, with whom they live, and in what proximity to potential victims, are clearly topics of popular and legislative discussion. However, this report demonstrates, yet again, that it is important to evaluate the pros and cons of such practices for the various stakeholder groups likely to be affected. While residency restrictions may provide some degree of solace to the community-at-large, it is by no means clear that this solace is prudent, given the findings of studies like this. In my humble opinion, the solution is not likely to be found in severely limiting or ostracizing all sexual offenders, regardless of offense history and level of risk. Rather, we may find that providing support and accountability in exchange for better sexual and self-regulation is an equitable trade (see Wilson, McWhinnie, & Wilson, 2008). Huebner et al.’s suggestion of using standardized means to identify and focus on those offenders who pose the greatest degree of risk is wise, and consistent with what we already know to be so, given the tenets of Risk, Need, Responsivity-based approaches (see Andrews & Bonta, 2010) with which so many of us in the risk management field are already intimately familiar.
Andrews, D.A. & Bonta, J. (2010). The psychology of criminal conduct (5th Edition).Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.
Levenson, J. S. & Hern, A. L. (2007). Sex offender residence restrictions: Unintended consequences and community reentry. Justice Research and Policy, 9, 59-73.
Mercado, C. C., Alvarez, S., & Levenson, J. S. (2008). The impact of specialized sex offender legislation on community reentry. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment
Socia, K. M. (2011). The policy implications of residence restrictions on sex offender housing in upstate, NY. Criminology & Public Policy, 10, 351-389.
Willis, G.M. & Grace, R.C. (2008). The quality of community reintegration planning for child molesters: Effects on sexual recidivism. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 20, 218-240.
Willis, G.M. & Grace, R.C. (2009). Assessment of community reintegration planning for sex offenders: Poor planning predicts recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36, 494-512.
Wilson, R.J., McWhinnie, A.J & Wilson, C. (2008). Circles of Support & Accountability: An international partnership in reducing sexual offender recidivism. Prison Service Journal, 138, 26-36.