How Do Sex Offenders Find Housing?

Convicted sex offenders often struggle to find housing after their release. A combination of prison policies and restrictive laws makes it difficult for these individuals to find a place to live.

Many states have laws that restrict where a registered offender can live, typically keeping them away from schools or parks. However, these laws are not always well-thought out.

Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act

Every state and territory, as well as many federally recognized Indian tribes, have registration and notification laws. These laws require adults convicted of, and juveniles adjudicated delinquent for, certain sex crimes to register and keep their information up to date. Typically, local county prosecutors receive these registration forms and make determinations about the offenders’ risks to the public. They decide what tier an offender is classified in based on a variety of factors set forth in statutes and attorney general guidelines. They also weigh the likelihood that an offender will re-offend to determine whether or not he or she will be placed on the public notice list.

These laws have some unintended consequences. They may stigmatize registrants and discourage offenders from seeking treatment for their sex-related offences. They may also impact victims, including children and family members of offenders. Victim advocates have noted that community notification can lead to inadvertent identification of victims and prevent them from reporting the abuse.

New York’s law requires sex offenders to register for 25 years after their conviction and update their information every 180 days, or once a year. The law also requires that level 3 offenders and offenders who have been deemed a sexual predator must personally verify their addresses (and give authorities a photograph) every 90 days. In addition, the law makes it a crime to fail to comply with the requirements.

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Megan’s Law

In the wake of the 1994 murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka at the hands of a neighbor who had repeatedly molested children, states began passing laws to require sex offenders to register and provide public notification of their presence in communities. Known as Megan’s Law after the victim, these laws follow the Jacob Wetterling Act of 1994 mandating registration and community notification, respectively (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2006).

The main goal of these residence restriction laws is to keep children safe from dangerous predators. However, research has shown that these laws have numerous unintended consequences, including making it difficult for sex offenders to find housing.

When property owners must disclose the presence of sex offenders to potential buyers and tenants, it can lower demand and hurt real estate values. Moreover, the stigma associated with being a registered sex offender can lead to ostracism and unemployment, which further hampers these individuals’ ability to find safe housing.

Those convicted of sex crimes involving children are particularly affected by residency restrictions, which limit where they can live by placing exclusion zones around schools, parks, playgrounds and day care centers. Typically, these restrictions range from 1,000 to 2,500 feet from these venues. Researchers who used geographic information systems technology to map sex offenders’ addresses in rural townships found that, with a 1,000-foot exclusion zone, only five of the 16 registered sex offenders could find housing outside this radius, and virtually all other available homes were beyond the 2,500-foot mark (Mustaine, Tewksbury & Stengel, 2007). This makes finding secluded areas difficult for these offenders, especially in larger urban populations.

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Employer Discrimination

While research is available on how sex offenders can find employment, less is known about how they can locate housing. Many states have laws that prevent employers from discriminating against employees with criminal records, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to landlords. Landlords have the right to refuse to rent to a convicted felon, but they must do so for a legitimate reason that does not relate to race, religion, or gender. Landlords should consult with a lawyer to determine the best course of action based on local restrictions.

Some landlords may feel hesitant to rent to a sex offender because of the stigma surrounding their crimes. However, this does not mean they should deny an application because of a record; this is illegal. It is also important to remember that the sex offender registry is public, so you can legally check this information in an applicant’s background report.

While sex offenders are trying to find stable housing, they can be prevented from doing so by local ordinances that place severe restrictions on where they can live. This has been a major issue in communities such as New York City, where sex offenders are subject to laws that prohibit them from living within 1,000 feet of schools. These restrictions push offenders away from family and into a transient lifestyle.

Renting to Sex Offenders

When you are a landlord, it is important to balance the need for safety with fair treatment of applicants. Denying applications based solely on arrests or a past conviction can lead to discrimination lawsuits. However, some past criminals pose a much greater risk than others, and you must weigh the danger of renting to someone with an unsavory past against the need to protect your rental property and residents.

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A person who has a sex-related crime in their past may face difficulty finding housing after they have served their sentence and completed probation. Many states require sex offenders to register in a database, and local laws often restrict where they can live, usually keeping them away from schools, parks, daycare centers, and other places where children gather.

In some cases, local law enforcement agencies may place registered sex offenders into motels as a form of emergency housing. This practice has gotten some backlash, with some locals complaining about the presence of convicted predators in their communities.

Landlords are legally allowed to refuse to rent to people on a sex offender registry, though they cannot use their status as an excuse for discrimination. It is best to consult a lawyer or property management expert regarding state laws on this subject. Performing a background check that includes an exhaustive search of the national and state sex offender databases can help you determine whether a person is eligible to rent from you.

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