A major focus of sex offender law in the last decade has been keeping offenders from living near schools, where they might find children to victimize. But a new study has found that some of the most dangerous sex offenders appear to flout these laws by moving closer to schools over time.
In research featured in the new book Crime Modeling and Mapping Using Geospatial Technologies, geographer Alan Murray and his team tracked the movements of over 1,000 sex offenders in Hamilton County, Ohio, from 2005 to 2007. They found that sex offenders moved far more often than the general population — 65.2% of the offenders moved in the two-and-a-half-year period of the study, while only 13.6% of Americans moved in the year 2007. And when they move, a significant chunk of them move close to schools or other places they're not supposed to live (it's worth noting that the laws in Hamilton County aren't so strict as to essentially bar offenders from living anywhere, which has been a concern in other areas).
The most dangerous class of offenders, designated as sexual predators, are also the most likely to move into these zones — 35.8% of them moved into school zones over the course of the study, while only 31.9% of less-dangerous "sexually-oriented offenders" did so. Some offenders already lived in school zones at the start of the study, even though they weren't supposed to, and moved from one school zone to another, while others moved into school zones from elsewhere. These moves might cause problems for anyone hoping to track sex offenders' whereabouts.
Murray et al write that their research reveals "a preference by offenders to reside in areas that have been deemed off limits by enacted residential laws." Offenders might prefer to live in school zones because these areas also tend to have a high concentration of rehab and other facilities they might want to take advantage of. However, there's a darker possibility: "This preference may also indicate strategic movements to areas with a ready supply of available targets." That is, some sex offenders might be consciously staying near schools so they can prey on more kids.
The study authors note that new legislation increased efforts by law enforcement to keep sex offenders out of school zones did appear to have had an effect — but it didn't come close to keeping all offenders out. They write, "despite these increasingly stringent laws, sex offenders move freely about communities and continue to reside in restricted residential areas." Essentially, restrictions on where sex offenders can live aren't necessarily keeping them away from kids, which might be giving both residents and lawmakers a false sense of security.