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Sex crime residency laws exile offenders

California voters weigh restrictions similar to those passed in Iowa.

October 30, 2006|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — Shortly after 8 each evening, David DenAdel kisses his wife and three kids goodbye and leaves his home in the peaceful suburb of Clive. A half-hour later, he pulls up at an unfurnished rental in a scruffy pocket of Des Moines, one of the few spots in the region where he can legally spend the night.

His children, ages 3 to 6, "think maybe I'm camping, but they really aren't sure," said DenAdel, 37, who pays $650 a month for the rental and $1,500 a month for the mortgage on his home. "It's not easy leaving them every night, but it's the law."

A little more than a year ago, Iowa began barring sex offenders such as DenAdel, convicted of sexual abuse on a 15-year-old girl, from living within 2,000 feet of a school or child-care center. Soon after, cities and counties passed even stricter rules, adding libraries, swimming pools, parks and bike trails to the protected list.

Now, much of urban Iowa is off limits to those whose past includes a sex crime against a minor.

As Californians prepare to vote next week on Proposition 83, which would impose a similar residency ban, Iowa is becoming an example of the unintended consequences of such measures.

Prosecutors, police officials and even victims rights groups say the crackdown has backfired, driving some offenders into rural towns and leaving others grouped at motels, campgrounds, freeway rest stops or on the streets.

Many have simply gone underground, authorities say, with more than twice as many registered sex offenders now considered missing than before the law took effect.

'Off the radar scope'

"These guys are off the radar scope, and we've got no idea where they are," said Bill Vaughn, chief deputy of the Polk County Sheriff's Department in Des Moines.

All around the Hawkeye State, police and sheriff's deputies say they are overwhelmed by the task of chasing down child molesters who violate the residency law. And although they don't often pity sex felons, authorities say the house-hunting challenge faced by the ex-cons is almost insurmountable.

"When they call and ask where they can legally live, my response is, 'Do you know anybody in Nebraska?' " said Des Moines Police Sgt. Barry Arnold. "It's a nightmare."

Iowa prosecutors agree. Their statewide association earlier this year declared the law a failure and asked the Legislature to pursue a different strategy to protect children from sex crimes.

The Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, representing victims, echoed that request. Executive Director Elizabeth Barnhill said Iowans are less safe now because sex offenders, facing banishment, are absconding in large numbers.

"Probation and parole supervisors cannot effectively monitor ... offenders who are living under bridges, in parking lots, in tents at parks or at interstate truck stops," she said.

Despite such concerns, Iowa's Legislature has declined to overhaul the law. One member, Republican Sen. Larry McKibben, acknowledged that "things may not be working the way we'd hoped." But in an election year, he said, legislators would not support anything "making life easier for these pariahs."

"We live in a nasty political environment, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to take a vote that somebody could turn into a direct mail piece saying I was going soft on sex offenders," said McKibben, who led a legislative task force that studied the law's effect.

Iowa is among about 20 states and hundreds of communities that have adopted rules governing where released sex felons may live.

In California, Proposition 83 would ban registered sex offenders -- including those whose victims were adults -- from homes within 2,000 feet of a school or park and would allow local governments to adopt more restrictive rules. The initiative also would increase prison and parole terms for some crimes and require electronic monitoring of registered sex offenders for life, an added step that backers say would prevent some of the problems that have surfaced in Iowa.

According to maps prepared by the California Senate, Proposition 83 would bar sex offenders from living in much of Greater Los Angeles and virtually all of San Francisco, leaving only the less densely populated suburbs and rural areas open to them. Already, some local governments are adopting Iowa-like ordinances.

Although sexual assaults on children have declined nationwide in recent years, several disturbing crimes have stirred politicians into action. Among them was the February 2005 murder of a 9-year-old Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford. Police believe she was killed by a convicted sex offender working at her school.

Advocates believe forbidding offenders to live near schools decreases their access to children and thus reduces assaults. Critics say the residency laws are anchored in faulty logic because strangers are responsible for only about 10% of sexual attacks on minors. The vast majority of assaults on young victims are committed by people they know and trust, often family members.

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