PITTSBURGH, PA – The ACLU of Pennsylvania and the PA Institutional Law Project filed a lawsuit today challenging an Allegheny County law that excludes convicted sex offenders from living virtually anywhere in the County except forested hilltops and a few high-income areas. One of the principal arguments is that Allegheny County’s law interferes with the state’s Megan’s Law and thereby undermines monitoring, rehabilitation and public-safety efforts by state and county probation and parole agencies.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Pittsburgh on behalf of six sex offenders, five who are already living in the county and one who is still in prison because he cannot find a place to live. The suit alleges that the Ordinance not only violates sex offenders’ constitutional right against increased after-the-fact punishment and other federal and state laws, but that the Ordinance interferes with Pennsylvania’s carefully constructed system for tracking and supervising sex offenders and undermines public safety.
Witold Walczak, the ACLU-PA Legal Director and one of the lawyers on the case, noted that, “sex-offender residency laws are political placebos that offer the public a false sense of safety, while in reality they interfere with Megan’s Laws and undermine more effective individualized efforts to prevent future crimes.”
Pennsylvania’s General Assembly has since the mid-1990s passed a series of laws, including a Megan’s Law, that give responsibility and authority over sentencing and post-release supervision to judges and professionals at the state and county Boards of Probation and Parole. These professionals are charged with determining how best to protect public safety by promoting offenders’ successful reintegration into society, which includes making individualized determinations about where sex offenders may live and under what terms of supervision.
The purpose of these laws is fourfold: public safety, rehabilitation of the offender, reintegration of the offender into the community, and reducing prison population demand. In each instance, Allegheny County’s Ordinance impedes, if not outright prevents, achievement of the state objectives.
In denying needed housing to prior offenders — even with their own family — the ordinance violates the Federal Fair Housing Act. It gives heed to a public stereotype that all sex offenders are child predators, whereas many, if not most, have not offended toward minors or do not present a significant risk of re-offending. As a consequence, notes Attorney Donald Driscoll on behalf of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, “offenders are forced to remain in prison despite full participation in treatment and earning parole, or are threatened with being uprooted from their homes and returned to prison if they do not or cannot move to remote locations where continuing treatment and supervision are far less likely.”
Allegheny County’s Ordinance was passed in October 2007 and prohibits sex offenders from living within 2500 feet of parks, community or recreation centers, schools, day care centers and other places where children congregate. Even though the Ordinance required the County to publish by March 2008 a map of permitted residential areas, to date no map has been released. For now, professionals responsible for placing sex offenders or deciding where they can live have taken the position that the entire county is off limits and are advising prior offenders to look for housing in Beaver or other counties.
It is believed that the map, when finally published, will prevent registered sex offenders from living virtually anywhere in Allegheny County, including the City of Pittsburgh. Areas in the County where residency will be nominally permitted will be limited to the tops of hills where there is no housing, or areas where there is only very expensive housing, there are few or no rental properties, zoning prohibits residential use, or public transportation is non-existent.
EJ Strassburger, another of Plaintiffs’ attorneys, observed that, “The County's Ordinance, unfortunately, fails to address sex offender issues constructively but instead, is a stark example of the ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome, which simply passes the buck from one neighborhood to others.”Laws like the one passed by Allegheny County have spread across the country in recent years. Increasingly, however, law enforcement and criminal-justice professionals have come to believe that such laws are counterproductive.
For example, in a December 2006 official statement the Iowa District Attorneys Association criticized the state’s sex-offender-residency restriction, one of the first in the country, saying that it “does not provide the protection that was originally intended and that the cost of enforcing the requirement and the unintended effects on families of offenders warrant replacing the restriction with more effective protective measures.”
Other counterproductive effects of sex-offender-residency laws identified by the Iowa DA’s and a growing number of public-safety professionals are:
- The laws force sex offenders into homelessness, causing them to not register their location to allow tracking and monitoring, a key function of all Megan’s Laws;
- Offenders who have completed their prison sentences or who have been granted parole and who are scheduled to be released on probation or parole are forced to remain in jail or prison because they have no place to live and are then released upon expiration of their sentence without any of the important reintegration services so important to preventing recidivism;
- The laws prevent sex offenders from living with or near family members, a support mechanism that is one of the most important elements for successfully rehabilitating the offender and thereby preventing future crimes; and
- The laws undermine parole and probation efforts to reintegrate offenders into the community by excluding them from areas determined by judges and probation professionals to be the most appropriate, where halfway houses, drug and alcohol counseling, mass transit and suitable jobs are nearby, which once again undermines efforts to promote public safety.
Lawyers for the six men also filed a motion for preliminary injunction today, asking the court to block the law’s implementation. The case is Fross v. Allegheny County. Besides Strassburger, Walczak and Driscoll, ACLU-PA staff attorney Sara Rose is also providing representation to the plaintiffs. The Complaint and the Iowa District Attorneys’ Association Statement can be accessed at: /our-work/legal/legaldocket/sexoffenderresidencyrestri/