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R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter today upheld the constitutionality of a state law that makes it a felony for any person required to register as a sex offender to reside within 300 feet of any school. RI ACLU volunteer attorney Katherine Godin, who brought the lawsuit, said the ACLU would appeal the ruling. Across the country, experts involved in the treatment of sex offenders, as well as victims’ rights groups, have opposed sex offender residency laws as being ineffective, counter-productive, and potentially more, rather than less, harmful to public safety. If the ruling is formally implemented pending appeal, a number of ex-offenders in Rhode Island who have not been deemed a public safety risk may likely face potential homelessness.
Two of the plaintiffs reside in Warren Manor II, a Providence facility operated by NRI Community Services, a non-profit provider of mental health and substance abuse treatment. The plaintiffs have developmental disabilities and rely on the staff there to assist them with medication, meals and various other daily activities. They have lived at the facility for three or more years. If forced to leave, the complaint alleged, they are “unlikely to find and be placed in a comparable assisted living facility.” They are designated at the lowest level offender classifications, and are not subject to community notification requirements.
However, the judge rejected the ACLU’s arguments that the statute was punitive in nature, as well as data submitted by the ACLU demonstrating that laws such as these do not protect the public. Attorney Godin said today: “We are extremely disappointed by the ruling and concerned that implementation of the law will have precisely the opposite effect of its stated purpose.”
Among the groups that have publicly raised concerns about broad sex offender residency laws, both locally and nationally, are the RI Disability Law Center, the RI Coalition for the Homeless, Day One Rhode Island, the American Correctional Association, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, and the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. A year before the Rhode Island law was adopted, the Rhode Island Sex Offender Management Task Force prepared a draft statement on residency restrictions that noted that “research shows that sex offenders with residential and family stability (which can be disrupted by such restrictions) are less likely to commit new sex offenses.”
At the time the lawsuit was filed, Chris Stephens, the President/CEO of NRI Community Services expressed concern that subjecting the plaintiffs to potential arrest and eviction under the statute “is not only contrary to their medical needs and increases their risk of homelessness, but it categorically does nothing to make the community safer.”
Shortly after Iowa became the first state in the country to implement a sex offender residency statute, the Iowa County Attorneys Association issued a statement opposing that statute, pointing out that “there is no correlation between residency restrictions and reducing sex offenses against children or improving the safety of children.” Other groups have noted that laws like these perpetuate the myth that most child sex offenses are committed by strangers, when in fact the overwhelming majority are committed by relatives and people the child knows.
In addition to NRI Community Services, representatives from the RI Disability Law Center and the RI Coalition for the Homeless have expressed support for the lawsuit.