Keeping the people on sex offender registries as far away from children as possible is a political winner if there ever was one, which may be why the Dallas suburb of Grapevine’s city council passed an ordinance last week that made it illegal for anyone on the state’s sex offender registry to “establish a permanent or temporary residence within 2,000 feet of any premises where children commonly gather.” The ordinance goes on to define those premises as “a park, playground, school, day care facility, video arcade facility, public or private youth center, registered home daycare, recreational hiking and biking trails, or public swimming pool,” though it also notes that it’s not limited to merely those locations.
The Dallas Observer made some salient points about what that means in Grapevine:
Look at a map of Grapevine, take note of all the parks and schools and kid-centric businesses, add in about 20 licensed child care centers, several of them operating out of people’s homes, and a registered sex offender’s housing options more or less disappear.
Maybe that’s what the City Council was after. It’s an understandable impulse, keeping the most thoroughly despised class of criminal out of one’s city. But a 2,000-foot buffer is excessive and, research suggests, will do nothing to make the children of Grapevine any safer.
The Observer goes on to cite studies that found that the larger risk children face comes from relatives or trusted caregivers, rather than “stranger danger,” which is relevant here. But what’s also important to remember about this is that restricting people on the sex offender registry isn’t necessarily the same thing as isolating the worst-of-the-worst criminals.
The Sex Offender Registry in Texas isn’t the most draconian when it comes to what can land a person on it; at the very least, we’re not one of the thirteen states that can require registration for public urination. The state’s law do seem relatively reasonable (Texas requires offenders from other states to register if there’s a comparable offense under Texas law). But it’s worth noting that there are shades of gray in the way the law is applied.
Consider this example. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a column yesterday from Pamela Dorsey, the mother of a boy who had been placed on the registry for something he did when he was fourteen:
At age 14, Zach was coming into his sexuality. Like many of his friends, he searched the Internet for girls his own age. But girls his age in sexually explicit pictures are classified as child pornography. When he downloaded them, he had no idea he was breaking the law. He believed that if something was readily available on the Internet, it must be OK.
Through the years he randomly viewed his downloaded library. One of the videos Zach downloaded was tagged by a federal agency that tracks child pornography. A few months after Zach turned 18, in 2008, St. Charles County deputy sheriffs were at our door to confiscate his computer. He was later called to the sheriff’s office for an interview. He went willingly and without a lawyer, thinking he had done nothing wrong.
She goes on to detail the challenges that her son faced after that conviction, and stories like Dorsey’s (who died of an overdose in 2010) aren’t rare. Children as young as eight years old can be required to register for the rest of their lives, which, depending on the situation, could likely be an excessive punishment. The Human Rights Watch published a 2013 report titled “Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US” that details the long-lasting consequences for youth offenders and whether “registration laws and related restrictions are an appropriate response to sex offenses committed by children.” If, for example, a sixteen-year-old was convicted of distributing child pornography for sending out naked selfies of a classmate—which is something that actually happened in Canada—in Texas, that teen would have landed on the registry for life, and thus unable to live almost anywhere in Grapevine.
Certainly, none of the behaviors described above—or, hell, even peeing in public, the offense that landed this Florida man on his state’s registry—are what we’d encourage as appropriate social behaviors. But lifelong punishment for antisocial behavior isn’t how our justice system is intended to work, which makes the decision in Grapevine to pass a one-size-fits-all restriction against people whose individual cases may not warrant it seems more complicated to justify.