When Evidence Is Ignored: Residential Restrictions for Sex Offenders

Article excerpt

The use of evidence-based practices in corrections and public policy is now considered the gold standard for policy and program development. Numerous examples (as discussed throughout this edition of Corrections Today) are available to show the importance and benefits of such an approach. In the practice of both institutional and community corrections, scientific evidence is important in formulating foundations for the operation of policies and programs. It identifies which are most likely to yield the desired results and where decisions can be guided to facilitate the achievement of safe, secure and humane institutions as well as enhanced community safety. Some observers criticize correctional policies and programs for contributing to high rates of recidivism, institutional violence, and the general failure of offenders to transform into productive and law-abiding citizens. It is therefore critical for correctional policies and practices to adhere to an evidence-based approach.

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However, many of the ways that correctional facilities and programs operate are determined not by informed correctional administrators but instead by decision-makers outside the correctional enterprise. There are several obvious downfalls to this procedure. First, when decisions are made outside the correctional realm, these policies either may impose restrictions on corrections officials in being able to do what they know is in the best interests of offenders and society, or the policies may compel them to implement practices that differ from recognized best practices. Second, sizeable costs may not always achieve the most efficient distribution of resources. If increased resources do not accompany new public policies, corrections officials may be forced to reallocate funding away from well-informed and beneficial programs and practices. Third, when those outside the correctional industry develop policies, corrections officials can end up (inappropriately) bearing the brunt of public disparagement for ill-advised decisions.

The value of an evidence-based approach to policy development and program implementation is best realized when decisions are made by individuals who are educated in the extensive research literature and experienced in translating scientific data into correctional practices and programs. The focus of this article is on the effect of the misguided and detrimental development of a community corrections practice that ignores existing research evidence. Residential restrictions for registered sex offenders is a clear example of how criminal re-integration, and potentially public safety, are negatively impacted by the failure of policymakers to draw on research evidence in establishing crime prevention policy.

Sex Offender Registration And Residential Restrictions

The registration of sex offenders has been a prominent part of the American criminal justice landscape since 1994 when Congress enacted the Jacob Wetterling Act that required convicted sex offenders to record their addresses with local law enforcement agencies. Megan's Law amended the Wetterling Act in 1996 by allowing the dissemination of registry information directly to the public. In 2006, the Adam Walsh Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act facilitated the creation of a national, Internet-based searchable sex offender database; increased registration and notification requirements; and enhanced penalties for crimes against children and for failure to register.

As a result of increased awareness of sex offenders living in the nation's communities, approximately one-half of the states and hundreds of local municipalities have also enacted laws that impose restrictions on where registered sex offenders may reside. Explicitly intended to enhance the safety of children, these laws prohibit registered sex offenders from living within specified distances (usually one-quarter to one-half mile) of places where children are likely to congregate. …