Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Cities ZONE OUT Sex Offenders


Given the choice, it’s unlikely anyone would let a sex offender live next door.But those offenders, including the 155 registered sex offenders in Tuscaloosa County, have to live somewhere,The question is where.As one of 18 states that restrict where sex offenders can live, Alabama requires sex offenders to live at least 2,000 feet away from a school or day-care facility.In the past six months, Tuscaloosa and Northport have extended the state restrictions with ordinances giving sex offenders decidedly fewer options in Tuscaloosa and Northport.In Tuscaloosa, sex offenders -- excluding offenders convicted of statutory rape -- cannot live or work any closer than 3,000 feet from a school.

Northport went even further last month, adopting one of the strongest sex offender ordinances in the state. The ordinance requires sex offenders to live and work at least 3,000-feet away from schools, daycares and preschools, after-school programs and public parks. Like Tuscaloosa’s ordinance, Northport’s also excludes statutory rapists. With only seven of the county’s 155 sex offenders living in Northport, city leaders said they want to prevent that number from increasing.While the intent of both ordinances is to make certain areas safer, in effect they could increase the chances in some neighborhoods that a sex offender will move in.The effect of the overlapping restricted zones has been to shrink the areas where sex offenders can live.

The areas that are open to sex offenders within Northport and Tuscaloosa city limits are few, especially in the center of both towns.In the unincorporated areas of the county, the restrictions fall back to the less stringent state code.Effects on home valueFor Jon Anderson, it is comforting to know that sex offenders can’t live in his area. Anderson, president of the East Tuscaloosa Neighborhood Association, spearheaded the effort to strengthen Tuscaloosa’s sex offender law last year after 13 sex offenders were living nearby at the Moon Winx Lodge and Chateau Apartments.“There is no question about it. It is a detriment to have sex offenders live in your area," Anderson said. “There is no magic bullet, and these things are going to happen. But [the sex offender law] clearly makes people feel more safe.

People’s perception is reality."Some residents think the restrictions should be even tougher. Glenn Griffin, who lives in Northport, suggested that neighborhood pools or subdivisions that have private lakes should be added to the list of banned areas for sex offenders. Doing so would protect more “family" neighborhoods, he said.“Pools and lakes are tempting places for people who shouldn’t be there," Griffin said.While stricter sex offender laws may make residents in covered areas feel safer, they could increase the number of sex offenders in other areas. Not only does this give rise to concerns about safety, it also can affect property values.

According to a 2003 study from The Appraisal Journal, property value can drop 17.4 percent when a violent sex offender lives within 1/10th of a mile. When a violent offender lives within 2/10th of a mile, home prices drop by 10 percent, and within 3/10th of a mile, the values drop 9.3 percent, the study found.Even with a low-risk sexual predator, property values decreased by 7.5 percent within 1/10th of a mile.A study published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research reported similar results, with property values decreasing by 4 percent within 1/10th of a mile of a sexual offender.“From what literature I’ve seen, having a sex offender in residence could obviously have a detrimental effect," said Leonard Zumpano, the Alabama Association of Realtors endowed chair of real estate at the University of Alabama. “How many people do you know who would choose to live next to a sex offender?

"But real estate agents and sellers are not required by law to publicize whether a sex offender lives in the area. It is up to the buyer to do the research and ask, Zumpano said.“If a buyer asks a broker, and if that broker knows it, they should respond truthfully. And if they don’t know, they should say as much," Zumpano said. “There is a certain degree of 'buyer beware’ that buyers have to exercise."Effects on offendersLimiting the areas where sex offenders can live also can be viewed as an infringement on a their basic rights, and could possibly even force them back into that behavior, according to some studies.“If you are going to narrow where somebody could live to the point where they are hunted out of an area or out of a state, it becomes a human rights issue," said Bronwen Lichtenstein, a medical sociologist in the Department of Criminology at the University of Alabama.

“It bleeds over to such things as freedom and liberty, which is guaranteed under the Constitution."According to a 2006 study from the Journal of Law and Health, sex offenders who have a difficult time finding housing or employment often report feeling increased isolation, financial and emotional stress and decreased stability. The study suggested that housing restrictions may inadvertently increase the likelihood sex offenders will offend again.Harrison Taylor, president of the Tuscaloosa City Council, said that Tuscaloosa’s sex offender law is unfair not only to sex offenders, but their families as well.

Taylor was the sole member of the City Council who voted against the ordinance when it was approved in November. His son is serving a six-year prison term for rape.“People do things, and that is a part of life. They pay their price," Taylor said. “But you are trying to push them out of the city and out into the county, and I just think it’s unfair. Everybody should have a decent chance to come back and make a life for themselves."Taylor said he hopes someone will challenge the city’s current law, because it will be a hardship on offenders and their families, as well as neighborhoods that could become overloaded with offenders.Are the laws effective?Laws regulating where sex offenders can live are still relatively new.

In 1994, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Act, which requires states to implement a sex-offender registration program.Congress later amended the act to include “Megan’s Law" which requires states to notify the communities of sex offenders who live or work there.Over the past decade, legislatures have been adding more restrictions on sex offenders, studies show.Lichtenstein said that national phobias arise from time to time in society, and that the fear of sex offenders is at its peak because of national media attention on violent sex crime cases.

The fear has resulted in stricter laws against sex offenders.In Alabama, sex offenders must fill out a verification form after they are released from jail, every time they consider relocating, when they move, when they are considering a new job and when they accept a new job, said Sgt. Abner Green of the Tuscaloosa Police Department. In addition, people convicted of violent sex crimes must verify where they live and work four times a year by reporting to their local law enforcement agency. Non-violent sex offenders must report twice a year.The Tuscaloosa Police, Northport Police and Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office physically verify each person’s information, Green said.But ultimately, the array of restrictions might have little effect.The laws might make people feel safe, but based on the statistics, that’s not necessarily true, Lichtenstein said.According to research from the National Center for Victims of Crime, 90 percent of child sexual abusers are male and have been married.

They are often family members, family friends or acquaintances of those they abuse.“These are generally people who people know," Lichtenstein said.Denise Evans, University of Alabama professor and author of The Complete Real Estate Encyclopedia agreed.“Studies show that the laws reinforce the stranger danger myth, which is that the danger of a sexual predator is a stranger," Evans said. “But, in fact, 80 to 95 percent of all sexual offenses against children were from family members, babysitters and childcare givers."While local sexual offender laws are often seen as positive legislation that protects the vulnerable, are they effective enough?

“The law might make people feel safe, but the truth is, child abuse and sexual predation is usually within the family or someone near the family," Lichtenstein said.Reach Lydia Seabol Avant at Lydia.seabol@tuscaloosanews or 205-722-0222.Studies that were used in this report:“The Effect of Proximity to A Registered Sex Offender’s Residence on Single-Family House Selling Price," by James Larsen, Kenneth Lowrey and Joseph Coleman, Appraisal Journal, 2003.“There Goes the Neighborhood?

Estimates of the Impact of Crime Risk on Property Values from Megan’s Laws" by Leigh Linden, Johah Rockoff, National Bureau of Economics Research working paper, 2006.“Ohio’s Sex Offender Residency Restriction Law: Does it Protect the Health and Safety of the State’s Children or Falsely Make People Believe So?" by Margaret Troia, Journal of Law and Health, 2006.

Lawsuit: Sex offenders singled out - Inmates say they're targets in jail


Two inmates are suing prison officials for housing them in a cell block known inside the walls as the "Gladiator Pod," where they claim sex offenders are singled out for harsh treatment.One of the men admits he's a sex offender; the other says he's been misclassified as one. But both claim in separate lawsuits that they've been targeted for abuse by inmates and officers.

Tony Ellison, 44, of Exeter and Harvey Pratt, 40, of Massachusetts were assaulted shortly after being moved to the cell block, according to lawsuits pending in federal court. Ellison said he suffered a 3-inch cut to his forehead in September 2006 from another inmate. Pratt said his beating by two inmates in March 2002 left him with a broken nose, broken ribs and a cut above his eye.In their lawsuits, both men describe the "Gladiator Pod," known officially as the C-pod in the Hancock Building, as home to younger, more combative inmates who are especially intolerant of sex offenders.

Ellison said sex offenders who stay in C-pod because they don't ask for protective custody are beaten or have their belongings stolen. In an interview at the prison last week, Ellison said after he was beaten, he buzzed prison staff for help for seven minutes before someone delivering mail noticed he was bleeding from the head and assisted him."It's a young kid pod," Ellison said. "They all want to be gangsters, and they have no respect.

Each pod has its own mentality, and C-pod is among the worst."Prison spokesman Jeff Lyons said he could not comment on the pending lawsuits or the men's characterization of C-pod. He said only that all inmates are given housing assignments based on their behavior, custody level and program requirements and that the prison takes seriously its obligation to keep inmates safe.Ellison landed in the C-pod after declining to participate in a classification hearing where prison officials assess an inmate's behavior to determine housing and programming requirements.

Ellison says he thought the hearing was optional and opted not to go. Before being relocated to C-pod, Ellison had spent more than four years in another housing unit without trouble, he said. He liked where he was living, had had the same cellmate for three years and had a job that allowed him to work double shifts. He wanted to stay, he said.There was no doubt that Ellison was a sex offender when he came to prison in August 2001.

He had pleaded guilty to nine counts of sexually assaulting three relatives, ages 10 and younger, in Rockingham County Superior Court and received a 30-to 60-year prison sentence. He said he will take the sexual offender treatment program when he nears his parole date and becomes eligible.His lawsuit, which was filed this month and includes many other grievances, accuses prison officials of failing to provide security and retaliating against him by housing him in the C-pod, knowing his offense would put him at risk there.

He said he has been labeled something worse than only a sexual offender: a sexual predator.He claims prison officials have also discriminated against him because he molested children. Ellison claims that when he complained to a unit manager about his beating, the manager told Ellison the assault was his own fault "because of what he came to prison for."A federal judge has given Ellison, who is seeking $1 million, until next month to pay a $12.50 filing fee to avoid having his claims dismissed. Prison officials have not yet responded to Ellison's lawsuit ,because it was filed recently.Classification disputePratt went to C-pod, he claims, after a prison official unfairly classified him as a sex offender when he arrived at the prison in 2001.

His case is more complicated because he was not convicted of being a sex offender.Pratt is serving a 2- to 6-year prison sentence for a charge of "interfering with custody." According to court records, he met a 14-year-old girl on the internet and invited her to come to his Quincy, Mass., apartment. He was 33 at the time and denied any sexual or inappropriate interest in the girl. He said he was trying to help her escape a difficult home situation, according to prison records.The victim, however, told the police that Pratt had kissed her and discussed the possibility of sex, according to prison records.

At Pratt's sentencing, Judge Harold Perkins required Pratt to undergo sexual offender treatment program in prison before becoming eligible for parole. And in 2003, parole officials denied Pratt parole because he had not done sex offender treatment.Pratt fought that treatment requirement, and, for reasons that were not explained in available court records, Perkins agreed in 2004 to drop the treatment requirement. But Pratt said he unfairly remains labeled a sex offender by prison officials and is being required to undergo sex offender treatment before he can be released.

Pratt filed his lawsuit in October 2005 and is seeking about $300,000 for numerous claims, including sleep deprivation, denial of due process, unfair disciplinary process and labeling him a sex offender. A federal judge dismissed some of the claims as beyond the statute of limitations but allowed others, including Pratt's complaints about the sexual offender label.Judge James Muirhead wrote in a court order that other courts have found that inmates must be afforded the appropriate means to challenge a sex offender label in certain circumstances.

That was particularly true in one case involving an inmate who, like Pratt, had not been convicted of a sex offense but was labeled a sex offender and required to take sex offender treatment."The court reasoned that 'the stigmatizing effect of being classified as a sex offender constitutes a deprivation of liberty under the Due Process Clause,' " Muirhead quoted in his order.

He concluded that if Pratt can show he was not provided adequate chance to challenge that label and treatment requirement, he may have a claim against prison staff.In their court response, prison officials have denied treating Pratt unfairly and argued that they are allowed to require Pratt to undergo sex offender treatment because while the judge dropped that program as a specific obligation, he did still required Pratt to participate in any counseling and treatment recommended by correction officials.

Prison staff have decided Pratt still remains a candidate for sexual offender treatment.Word spreads fastIn the interview, Ellison confirmed the disfavor a sex offender label brings an inmate inside prison - from inmates and staff. That's especially true for inmates whose crimes have received media attention, he said."It's the most discriminating witch hunt there is," he said. "(Prison staff) tell everybody. I was told within three or four minutes of getting to prison that people knew (of my offense)."Ellison said until he was sent to C-pod, he managed to stay out of harm's way by minding his own business and accepting responsibility for his crime. "I know I have a debt to repay to society. I have great remorse," he said.But he doesn't believe his debt should include the beatings and discrimination he described in his lawsuit.

Ellison is required to share his medical expenses with the inmate who assaulted him. And both were disciplined for the fight, not only Ellison. He doesn't think that is fair.Ellison said he fears more inmates will be assaulted because the prison staff have been shifting more inmates recently and have begun integrating more sex offenders into C-pod."It's a time bomb waiting to explode," he said.