If you’re convicted of a sex-related criminal offense, you are likely to spend time in prison or at least on probation. Once you finish your sentence, however, you are also likely to have to register on your state’s sex offender registry, which usually means you will face strict restrictions on housing.
As of 2021, more than 30 states have enacted housing restrictions for people who must register on a sex offender registry. Additionally, hundreds of local governments have imposed restrictions of their own on housing for those on a sex offender registry or with a sex-related criminal offense on their record.
For example, New Jersey does not have a statewide sex offender residency restriction law. However, more than 113 New Jersey municipalities have barred sex offenders from living near schools, parks, beaches, daycare centers, or bus stops.
Are sex offender registry housing restrictions constitutional?
Although initially challenged as potentially unconstitutional, courts consider sex offender regsitries and housing restrictions constitutional. Indeed, laws and regulations restricting where registered sex offenders may live have become increasingly popular.
Specifically, housing restrictions bar people on the sex offender registry from residing near schools, parks, playgrounds and daycare centers. Typically, these laws and regulations impose a 1000-feet limit from specified areas where kids frequently gather where people on a sex offender registry may not go.
In some jurisdictions, the distance they have to maintain can be as little as 500 feet or as much as 3000 feet. To avoid legal trouble, anyone affected by these laws must check the housing restrictions that apply in their area. But, in general, these housing restrictions will impact your ability to find a home and, in some cases, your ability to find a job.
It’s important to note that a handful of isolated cases exist where courts have struck down laws for going too far. For example, in 2017, a federal court found that the impact of one community’s housing restrictions excluded people on the sex offender registry from over 90% of the neighborhoods in that city in a case called Hoffman v. Village of Pleasant Prairie. That, the court said, was too restrictive.
Another court upheld a constitutional challenge to a municipal ordinance prohibiting people on the sex offender registry from entering public libraries. The court reasoned that the ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. Still, these laws enjoy broad public support and will likely continue to expand.
Are sex offender registry housing restrictions effective?
Residency restriction laws have led to some unintended consequences. Studies show that in many parts of the country, housing restrictions create exclusion areas that make it almost impossible for people on the sex offender registry to find adequate housing.
As such, people on the sex offender registry often become homeless. They often resort to using fake identities or reporting false addresses for housing purposes, making them difficult to track. This defeats the purpose of requiring people to register in the first place, exacerbating the situation.
In fact, housing restrictions may be counterproductive to reducing recidivism rates, and, according to the American Bar Association, some courts believe they are worth reconsidering. Ongoing research is underway because by preventing people on the sex offender registry from living near their support networks (family, friends, employment areas, etc.), “they are deprived of support and employment that would allow them to reintegrate into the community successfully.”
Still, anyone affected by these laws and ordinances must comply with them. The penalties for violating them are severe. In some states, violations result in fines. But in others, violations can lead to new charges.
In New York State, for example, failure to perform any of the registration obligations is a felony-level crime. A first conviction is punishable as a Class E felony; a second or subsequent conviction is punishable as a Class D felony.
In most states, there is some form of a sex offender housing restriction in place, whether at the state or municipal level. Anyone affected by these restrictions must be careful to comply. Penalties can be severe.