July 9, 2009

County's Ordinance Interferes with State's Comprehensive Restrictions on Released Sex Offenders; Shantytown Under Causeway Bridge Creates Public Safety Crisis

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 
CONTACT: (786) 363-2737 or media@aclufl.org

MIAMI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a lawsuit today against Miami-Dade County alleging that the county's 2,500-foot residency restriction for registered sex offenders interferes with the State of Florida's comprehensive program for law enforcement and corrections officers to monitor and supervise released offenders.

State law makes it unlawful for persons convicted of certain sexual offenses to reside within 1,000 feet of any school, day care center, park or playground. Miami-Dade County's ordinance, passed in 2005, imposes a more stringent restriction of 2,500 feet. As Secretary of the Department of Corrections McNeil has recognized, because of the County ordinance, over 70 individuals have resorted to living under the bridge on the Julia Tuttle Causeway, while yet others have absconded, creating a public safety crisis. Details and photos can be viewed at: www.aclufl.org/tuttle/

"If the County's intention was to make our community safer, they have really missed the mark with this ordinance," said Carlene Sawyer, President of the Greater Miami Chapter of the ACLU of Florida. "This misguided policy has led to over 70 registered offenders being forced to live in a shantytown under a bridge. Any government policy that forces offenders into homelessness and encourages others to abscond makes our communities less safe.  This policy also impedes the ability of Corrections officials to ensure that released offenders are regulated, rehabilitated and safely re-integrated into society."

The ACLU lawsuit alleges that the ordinance "unreasonably burdens" the registered offenders from finding affordable housing – an unintended consequence of Miami-Dade County's ordinance. The resulting shantytown under Miami's Julia Tuttle Causeway bridge, where over 70 registered offenders live in makeshift shelters, is a public safety crisis since, as studies show, instable living conditions lead to higher rates of recidivism and absconding – both of which lead to a more dangerous situation.

"The State has a comprehensive system to monitor and track sex offenders, and includes a 1,000-foot residency restriction. The County's ordinance, while seemingly well-intentioned, creates more problems than it solves," said Maria Kayanan, ACLU of Florida Associate Legal Director. "Our community will increasingly become less safe every day that this ordinance leads offenders to live under a bridge, where they are more likely to abscond and evade officers. The County is directly interfering with the State's obligation to monitor offenders. The time for finger pointing is over – it's time for a solution."

In June 2008, the ACLU sent a letter to Governor Crist urging his involvement to mitigate the crisis in Miami – variations of which are increasingly appearing across Florida – but the Governor has remained AWOL on the issue. The letter pointed out that the laws restricting where released sex offenders can live have created new problems for public safety, and was co-signed by sexual assault and domestic violence prevention organizations including the Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Council of Greater Miami, the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, and the Florida Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

"The County's ordinance interferes with the necessary work of State Corrections and law enforcement officers to monitor and supervise released offenders," said Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida Executive Director. "The ACLU is as concerned about protecting our communities – especially our children – as anyone else, but the County's restriction is making our community more dangerous."

If the court rules that the County's ordinance must give way to the State's restrictions, released offenders will not be forced to live under the bridge and State officials will be better able to monitor and supervise them.  Released offenders will be in a supervised, monitored setting – as long as it is 1,000 feet from a school, park, playground or any other place where children congregate. This is the standard set by the State Legislature, which the Department of Corrections enforces," Simon added.

"This is a statewide problem. The ACLU of Florida has tried for several years to work with politicians to resolve this ever-growing crisis.  But in the absence of leadership from our local and State politicians on this issue, we are forced to turn to the courts for a solution to this dangerous public safety crisis," said Jeanne Baker, ACLU of Florida Cooperating Attorney. 

"The Florida Council Against Sexual Violence remains concerned that residency restrictions, especially local ordinances, are not the best approach to ensuring public safety," said Terri Poore, Director of Public Affairs for Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. "We fear that offenders in unstable living conditions may be more likely to reoffend, congregate together, and overly stress certain communities. There are no easy or one-size-fits-all solutions, but sex offenders in the community must receive close and individualized monitoring by specialized probation officers with small caseloads."

Exile v. Miami-Dade County was filed today in the Circuit Court of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County.  Attorneys include: Maria Kayanan, Associate Legal Director; Randall Marshall, Legal Director; Jeanne Baker, Cooperating Attorney, all of the ACLU of Florida; and Peter Sleasman, Steckley Lee, Christopher Jones, and Robert Dwyer, all of Florida Institutional Legal Services.

Download a PDF of the ACLU's complaint here: www.aclufl.org/pdfs/Exile.pdf

Download a copy of the ACLU's June 2008 letter to Governor Crist here: www.aclufl.org/pdfs/ResidenceRestrictions060208.pdf

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