This is a story of unintended consequences. In recent years several laws were created that were designed to protect women and children from sexual predators. Legislation such as Megan’s Law, Amber Alerts, and Jessica’s Law were promoted by residents of family-oriented suburban communities and passed by their elected representatives. Who could possibly be against such measures? But here’s the thing… they tend to backfire in weird ways no one ever anticipated.
For example, Jessica’s Law states that it’s illegal for registered sex offenders to live within a certain distance of a park, school, church, or other location where children gather. That seems sensible enough. Now I happen to live in an older mixed-use relatively dense neighborhood that’s chock full of parks, schools, and churches. I did a quick survey of a 4,000 foot circumference around my apartment and I counted at least a dozen churches , a synagog, a high school, a middle school, a community youth center, a couple of large parks, several mini parks and playgrounds, and a community swimming pool. Jessica’s Law makes it impossible for registered sex offenders to legally live anywhere near me and the people I care about. Thanks to Megan’s Law the whereabouts of such unsavory individuals are a matter of public record and easily found on the internet. Sounds pretty good.
Photo credit: Google Earth
But I regularly visit family and friends in distant suburbs in other cities – exactly the kinds of conservative family environments that created these laws in the first place. These sprawling communities were built on the premise that single family homes on large lots built at a respectable distance from the great unwashed masses of strangers were the safest environments to raise children. But this kind of dispersed hopscotch development also happens to provide the perfect environment for people who need to comply with Jessica’s Law. These physical parameters have dovetailed nicely with the recent foreclosure crisis to provide abundant affordable rents and willing landlords for all sorts of people who might not have been welcomed before the economic crash. In fact, large isolated homes with underwater mortgages and no apparent buyers or market rate renters have sat vacant for a number of years now and investors are beginning to convert them to group homes for all sorts of folks: elderly care homes, homes for the developmentally disabled, and group homes for registered sex offenders. Read here.
Photo credit: Google Earth
Many of these communities exist within unincorporated territory with no particular local government structure other than scattered private home owners associations. NIMBYs regularly complain to county and state authorities who are largely unable to take meaningful action so long as no laws are being violated. Other more organized communities have responded by creating small parks for the sole purpose of repelling sex offenders. Read here. Such parks don’t have to be particularly elaborate or even useful as long as they exist on paper in some official form. But these arrangements involve the purchase of private land at some cost and the ensuing maintenance and liability insurance, etc. Not all communities are able to rally support and find the resources to respond in this particular manner.
I find it ironic that when I was a kid social outcasts, criminals, and perverts were relegated to the inner city neighborhoods that were abandoned by the middle class who fled to leafy suburbs on the far edge of big cities. Now we’re seeing the exact opposite.