Outdated and Inhuman Restrictions on Where Sex Offenders May Live

by Aimée Sutton

People convicted of sex offenses get used to living their lives with many restrictions. They usually serve long prison sentences or live under the tight control of probation officers. But even when prison ends and probation supervision eases, they must live as registered sex offenders.

Since the mid-1990s all states have required sex offenders to register. Most must stay registered for a long time, from ten years to life.

Since a state has no power to control an individual’s actions after a term of probation expires, some localities have created their own rules for registered sex offenders. These municipal ordinances are usually passed in the name of public safety. They usually require sex offenders to live a certain distance from places where children tend to congregate. While at first glance that may seem sensible, in practice these rules can have devastating consequences. In some towns there is no housing that is not within the forbidden zones, so sex offenders are forced into homelessness, sometimes even resorting to living under bridges on the outskirts of towns.

This extreme housing dilemma faced by some registered sex offenders has spurred sympathetic groups to action. They believe shelter is a fundamental right. On that theory, a group in Texas has challenged local restrictions on sex offender residence as an unconstitutional deprivation of liberty. The group has convinced many towns to abandon their restrictive covenants.

Attacks on these restrictions have worked in other areas of the country as well. Since 2014, state and federal judges have struck down laws restricting where sex offenders may live in California, New York, and Massachusetts.

There are various legal theories used in these cases, but the fundamental thing that strikes me is this: these laws are archaic. They harken back to an era when society publicly shamed people with scarlet letters. And they do not have the beneficial effects that may have been envisioned because they destabilize people who are trying to get their lives back on track.

Even in jurisdictions that do not restrict where sex offenders may live, there are many other negative consequences of having to register. At the Marshall Defense Firm, we help people seek relief from registration when they are eligible for relief. I believe that when someone has paid their debt to society, they should be able to live in genuine freedom.