Steve Blow’s column over the weekend was right on in pointing out that Mayor Mike Rawlings’ idea of a buffer zone for sexual predators is not a good one. But it goes beyond the reasons Blow mentions. Not only does it sometimes make it tough on people who don’t fit our typical idea of what a sex offender is, it’s also bad policy. In fact, some experts argue buffer zones make children less safe. And it should be noted that the Council did an outstanding job acting like leaders and not pushing through an ill-considered ordinance.
In makes sense that Rawlings thought the discussion over “sex offender buffer zones” (aka, “sex offender residency restriction ordinances”) would go pretty smoothly. It’s a no-brainer, right? The mayor had seen a report on Channel 8 that strongly suggested Dallas was remiss in not following its municipal neighbors in establishing buffer zones for sexual predators — areas near places where children routinely gather (other than “on earth”) where sex offenders could not live. Rawlings decided something had to be done about it, got the Dallas Police Department to agree buffer zones were a good idea, and, bam, there it was on the agenda for the first post-summer-break Council briefing.
This was problematic for two reasons. First, it irritated several council members whose first knowledge of the ordinance discussion came from the agenda. They weren’t consulted, and they felt blindsided. Second, no research had been gathered other than “Channel 8 made us look weak!” and “Other cities do it.” It would have taken a staffer about an hour to show that buffer zone effectiveness is highly controversial, and that many experts suggest such policies actually increase the likelihood a sex offender will commit a crime. Why? In general, it makes it harder for a sex offender to reestablish residency, which leads to homelessness and instability, which has a causal link to criminal recidivism. As well, “… some prosecutors and victim advocates have publicly denounced residence restrictions, cautioning that the transience created undermines the very purpose of sex offender registries … and makes it more difficult to track and supervise sex offenders.” (Richard Wright, Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions (2009).)
That’s why the Council — calmly, without making a public spectacle — one by one let the mayor know they were not going to back him on this issue. They called for more study, which is exactly what a governing body should do in this instance. But they also felt as though they were sending the mayor a message: If you want to lead, then you have to stop winging it and bypassing Council until the last minute. They were right to do so, as a matter of politics and policy.