By Steven Yoder . . . On Sept. 30, 2016, in a Los Angeles suburb, 48-year-old Michael Zinzun, a homeless man on the California sex offender registry, approached a woman sleeping on a park bench and reportedly asked if she wanted to smoke meth. When she turned him down, he allegedly started sexually assaulting her. As she screamed, he dragged her away, pushed her over a three-foot retaining wall, and then raped and tried to strangle her, according to charges filed by the Los Angeles district attorney and local reports. The woman survived, and Zinzun is facing life in prison for rape, kidnapping, and other charges.
Cases like this might seem to argue for even tougher controls on ex-offenders convicted of sex crimes. But new research indicates that the existing sex-offense regime in the US actually may be making repeat sex crimes more likely.
Since the mid-1990s, legislators have devised increasingly byzantine rules for those who have been punished. Those include sending out postcards when an offender moves to a neighborhood, placing warning signs outside offenders’ homes, setting restrictions on what offenders can do on Halloween, and devising “presence” restrictions banning them from places like parks, malls, and museums where children might be present. That ever-tightening leash has produced unintended outcomes with an almost mechanical predictability. Many cities have devised new no-go zones that keep them from living near places like school, parks, and daycares and have seen their homelessness rates spike as a result.
California passed a law in Nov. 2006 forbidding parolees who’d committed a sex crime from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks. Less than five years later, the number of them who were homeless had risen from 88 to almost 2,000. In Oct. 2014, Milwaukee passed an ordinance banning many registrants from living within 2,000 ft of schools, parks, day cares, recreational trails, and playgrounds. The number of homeless registrants promptly soared from 15 to 230 in less than two years, according to an analysis in Oct. 2016 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Now, new research suggests making it harder for offenders to find a place to live might increase reoffending. In a study released in July 2016, researchers from the California and Canadian justice departments looked at more than 1,600 California sex offenders on probation or parole. Overall, the group’s sex-crime recidivism rates were low–less than 5% during the five-year follow-up period. But those who were homeless were over four times more likely to commit a repeat sex crime than those who weren’t. “Collectively, transient status seems to be associated with higher sexual recidivism rates,” the researchers concluded. That’s likely because those who lack stable homes, jobs, and social connections are more prone to reoffend.