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8 Jul, 2010 20:06

The Untouchables: Sex offenders hope for a new start

Even after they have paid their debt to society, sex offenders are far from free. Legislation intended to keep them away from children affects their lives in unintended ways.

This is part two of an in-depth report on the lives of sex offenders after they have served their sentences.

Larry Tyler's victim was 14 years-old when—according to him—he simply put his hand on her vagina. He was 39.

Kevin Morales demanded a sexual favor from his victim. She was a family member.

Terry Norton kissed a neighbor “on her private part". They were drunk at a Christmas party. He woke up the next morning and she was gone. He says he got a phone call from her demanding that he give her his Corvette.

They live under Miami's Julia Tuttle Causeway, because that’s the law.

This law materialized after years and years of highly disturbing and highly-profile child sex abuse cases all over south Florida. It originally prohibited sex offenders released from prison from living within 1,000 feet of any school, church, playground, park, or mall; later, the “residency restrictions" were increased to 2,500 feet. The law was put into place in city after city, county after county in a kind of domino effect. Ron Book may be the man responsible for tipping over the first domino. A powerful lobbyist, Book was instrumental in getting residency laws for sex offenders passed in counties, cities and municipalities all across Florida and has been called in as a consultant when other areas wanted to pass similar laws.

Book’s story explains why began the residency law campaign in the first place. For nearly six years, his daughter, Lauren, was molested by a live-in nanny. She's now in prison. His case reads like that of a father protecting his daughter, and it’s possible to argue that the sex offender laws are all simply a case of parents protecting their children.
But this is where the story gets much more complicated.

Ron Book says the stricter residency restrictions work. According to him, sex offender registration is up in Miami and absconding is down, as is the number of sex abuse crimes against children is down.

But the Florida chapter of the ACLU disagrees, saying that residency restrictions are too strict. The ACLU argues that because the laws force sex offenders to live in the hell that is the Julia Tuttle Causeway, many sex offenders won't register themselves and, consequently, don't end up living underneath the Causeway. Where they do live is an unanswerable question because they could be anywhere, hidden from the law. They could even be near a school, playground, park or church, and no one would know it.

Just about everyone also agrees the definition of the term "sex offender" is much too broad under Florida state laws. Certainly some sex offenders fit the stereotype and some have done horrible things. But there are also 18-year-old guys who have sex with their 17-year-old girlfriends. There are men who urinated in public. There are women who streak across parks or stadiums. Should they all be forced to live with the restrictions required under Florida sex offender laws?
There are, however, other places sex offenders can live in Miami-Dade County—exclusive, extravagant, gated communities that are nowhere near any place children could be. But few sex offenders can afford to live in those communities. Few of them can even get jobs.

And this is where a man named Randy Young steps in. Young finds places throughout the Sunshine State where sex offenders can live, but in south Florida, the most likely place is Fort Lauderdale. Housing prices there have tumbled dramatically in the past few years and although the area has a residency restriction, it is only 1,400 feet.
But that doesn't mean the work of finding homes and dignity for just-released sex offenders is an easy. The moment the neighbors find out Young is planning to lease homes in their area to convicted sex offenders, they are up in arms. Sometimes prospective home sellers balk, too. Young has found, however, that money talks in an economy as down as that in south Florida.

Home sellers, finding no legitimate buyer any time soon, are grudgingly taking Young's offers. In some cases, sellers are even asking Young if he'd like to lease out their properties to other sex offenders. These sellers believe that sex offenders will not break the law again once placed in a neighborhood, where they live under a microscope by the law. Ironically, sometimes the presence of sex offenders in the neighborhood even makes it safer, by bringing in an increased police presence.

In the meantime, the ranks of convicted sex offenders living underneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway have thinned considerably. Only about a dozen of them remain. In addition to the ones resettled by Randy Young, others have been relocated temporarily by various charitable organizations and local governments who considered Sex Offender City to be an anathema to the city. In another twist, Ron Book helped with their temporary housing—in addition to being a lobbyist, he is also the director of Miami's homeless trust.

But these solutions are only temporary ones. The larger problem of what to do with sex offenders who have served their time remains unsolved.