(This story was published in conjunction with The Colorado Sun.)
By Karen Auge
The laws requiring the names of convicted sex offenders nationwide to be catalogued, and available to the public, bear the names of children sexually assaulted and murdered by predators who had committed sex offenses before. The goal was to prevent the same from happening to other children.
The Jacob Wetterling Act. Megan’s Law. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.
The intent of the laws may be unassailable. But throughout the country, they have largely sequestered sex offenders in low-income neighborhoods.
That unequal distribution is “one of the unintended consequences of sex-offender registries,” said Mary Evans, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Northern Colorado. “The only places in society that will allow them to reenter are socially challenged areas.”
When laws were passed requiring sex offenders to register with local authorities, and requiring those registries be made available to the public, they were met with little opposition. (Colorado's law passed in 2002.) Now, though, some are questioning whether public registries serve any useful purpose. A growing body of research shows they offer little protection and may even contribute to sex offenders committing additional crimes.
In the East Colfax neighborhood of Denver, there are 87 registered sex offenders, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation sex offender database. The neighborhood has a population of just about 11,000, according to U.S. Census data as reported by the Piton Foundation.
Many of them are homeless. A single motel on Colfax is listed as the address of 22 sex offenders. Among East Colfax residents, the poverty rate is about 30 percent.
The affluent Cherry Creek neighborhood of Denver is home to zero registered sex offenders, according to the CBI, as of July 2019. There are two in the even wealthier Country Club neighborhood just to the west. The combined population of the two neighborhoods is 9,810.
In Cherry Creek, the number of families living in poverty is 2 percent, according to Census data. No families live in poverty in Country Club, the 2016 Census shows.
Sex offender numbers are approximations. Most offenders are supposed to check in every 90 days and every time they move, but records indicate that some fail to register consistently. Nevertheless, the statistics regarding poverty and where registered sex offenders live are consistent across Denver and throughout the state.
Aspen, with a population of around 7,000, a median household income of $64,594 and poverty rate of 9.5 percent, according to Census figures, is home to three registered sex offenders. La Junta, which also has a population a little over 7,000, but where the median household income is $32,437 and 27 percent of residents live in poverty, has 33 registered sex offenders.
Angela Garcia, a member of the neighborhood group Globeville First in Denver, isn’t so sure those consequences are unintended. In low-income communities, “who’s going to complain? When you feel ignored, when you feel invisible, when you feel you have no voice.”
Zoned out, and shut out
Colorado is not among the 30 states that prevent registered sex offenders from living near places where children congregate, like parks, playgrounds and schools. But several cities, including Greeley, Commerce City and Englewood, have enacted (or tried to enact) zoning restrictions to accomplish similar goals. In 2006, Englewood adopted an ordinance that would effectively have zoned sex offenders out of virtually the entire city. That ordinance has been altered following court challenges.
“It is an unfortunate byproduct of society and the way social capital works that low-income communities are more vulnerable to higher concentrations of sex offenders,” said Grant Duwe, director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, who has conducted several studies on the issue.
Zoning restrictions, largely enacted in more affluent communities, are one explanation. Landlords in more affluent neighborhoods are far more likely to conduct background checks on potential tenants, and to screen out sex offenders, Evans said. Economic barriers also contribute.
“You need a certain amount of resources to complete the required therapy,” said Christopher Braddock, a Denver attorney who has represented a number of sex offenders. “And, the jobs you’re going to get while you’re an offender are not high-paying jobs. And that is a serious problem.”
At the same time, finding a landlord in an affluent neighborhood who will rent to a sex offender is practically impossible, said Boulder attorney Alison Ruttenberg, who represents offenders challenging the state’s public sex-offender registry.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis signed a law, pushed by Democratic lawmakers, to limit a landlord’s ability to use criminal records when considering whether to rent to an applicant. But the law included an exemption that allows landlords to consider any offense that required a prospective tenant to register as a sex offender.
“I have clients who could afford to rent expensive places, but unless they own their property, they can’t get housing,” Ruttenberg said. “Landlords in lower-class neighborhoods are less picky about who they are renting to. I’ve got a lot of clients who live in dive motels on Colfax who are gainfully employed and could live somewhere else.”
Fear and declining property values
The impact on these cities, towns and neighborhoods where sex offenders do live in large numbers is hard to measure, but it is unlikely most residents have a live-and-let-live attitude. Two of the most common byproducts of sex offenders clustering in a neighborhood are lower property values and fear, said Duwe.
A study published in the American Economic Review in 2008 backed that up. Using data collected in North Carolina, researchers estimated that “a single offender depresses property values in the immediate vicinity by about $5,500 per home,” but added that “this effect dissipates quickly with distance of homes from the offender; homes between 0.1 and 0.3 miles away show no effect.”
The fear sex offenders generate is well-documented. In June 2007, for example, members of a small New York state community learned that two sex offenders lived in their neighborhood. Their reaction included posting signs in front of offenders’ homes reading “Monsters Live Here.” They also attempted to have the offenders’ evicted.
Carla Padilla knows a bit about that fear.
Padilla’s family has lived in Globeville, a north Denver neighborhood, for five generations. As of May, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation website listed 167 registered sex offenders in the 80216 ZIP code, which encompasses most of the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. And with summer in full swing and her granddaughters out of school, she knows they’ll be outdoors, and potentially coming within close proximity of some of those registered individuals.
“We live half a block from a park. We can’t keep them inside all summer, so we’ve taught them to be on the lookout,” she said. “But I still look out the window every five minutes, checking on them.”
An issue few will talk about
When the topic is restricting sex offenders’ access to certain neighborhoods, elected officials, residents and community activists can be very vocal. But when the discussion turns to a disproportionate number of sex offenders already living in an area, those same groups often have nothing to say.
Dozens of neighborhood groups, advocates for disadvantaged youth, elected officials and others in west Denver, the East Colfax neighborhood and elsewhere were contacted for this article. Former councilman Paul Lopez, whose district included Sun Valley, Lincoln Park and other west Denver neighborhoods with high numbers of sex offenders, declined to comment. (At the time he was contacted, Lopez was campaigning to become Denver City Clerk and Recorder. He won the race.) Others suggested alternate sources of information. But most simply did not respond at all to messages asking to discuss the issue.
Neighborhoods along East Colfax and in west Denver—neighborhoods with some of the city’s highest poverty rates and high volumes of registered sex offenders—are in the midst of major redevelopment efforts. Denver has invested millions to purchase and refurbish properties and is working to attract private investment in those areas. In 2017, for example, Denver announced plans to purchase a notorious East Colfax night club that featured nude dancing—which stood directly across from one of the hotels that houses a high number of sex offenders—and a nearby vacant lot. Both are designated for redevelopment featuring a mix of housing and business.
The silence often extends to residents in those neighborhoods, and Padilla thinks she knows why.
She suspects she may be more aware of the problem than most; she works in the office of an attorney whose clients include sex offenders. Many of her neighbors, she said, have many more immediate worries.
“We’re fighting pollution, we’re a food desert, there is high crime. Globeville has so many fights,” Padilla said. Sex offenders living nearby may not be at the top of the list for many residents, she believes.
Add to that the fact that many residents of low-income neighborhoods are not native English speakers, and the likelihood of them going online to check the sex offender registry is low. “And if you’re undocumented, you’re not going to make waves,” Padilla said.
She said many of her Globeville neighbors rent month-to-month, without a signed lease. “So, if they complain to a landlord, the landlord will just tell them to move.”
What Padilla has observed is backed up by research, Evans said: “Residents of more affluent neighborhoods tend to have higher levels of education, and access to the internet, so they are more likely to check on who is in their neighborhood.”
Fears vs. facts
When affluent communities zone out sex offenders, they often do so because they share the widely held belief that living near sex offenders puts people, especially children, at greater risk. But there is little data to support those assumptions.
In a 2017 article published by the American Bar Association, sex-crime policy researcher Jill S. Levenson noted that, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 93 percent of children who are victims of sex crimes are abused by family members, friends or acquaintances. “Sex offenders do not molest children because they live near schools. They abuse when they are able to establish relationships with children and their families and misuse positions of familiarity, trust and authority,” Levinson wrote.
One study of nearly 10,000 sex offenders found that 5.3 percent of them were arrested again for a sex crime in the three years after they were released from prison, compared with 68 percent of those released from prison for all types of crimes. The authors noted, however, that sex crimes are notoriously underreported.
One factor that increases the odds an offender will commit another sex offense: living in a disadvantaged neighborhood.
“When individuals re-enter society, they need three things to keep them from re-offending: a job, housing and community connections,” Evans said. Moving into an unstable, challenged community “is a recipe for having them recidivate.”
In a 2010 study in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, a University of California, Irvine team reported that when sex offenders live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, “such neighborhoods may be unable to address such social and health needs of parolees as housing, employment opportunities, drug treatment, health care, and counseling.”
The researchers also found that sex offenders are more likely to wind up in disadvantaged neighborhoods than other criminals, including those who have served much longer prison terms.
“Sex offenders experience a particularly pernicious downward cycle in neighborhood quality: not only are they released into neighborhoods with more concentrated disadvantage and residential instability than other parolees, but they also move into worse neighborhoods… with each move,” the researchers found.
For many, the multiple moves ultimately end in homelessness.
Homelessness is prevalent among sex offenders. In Sterling, a small city in northeastern Colorado, 11 of the city’s 55 registered sex offenders are homeless. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation map shows a cluster of seven sex offenders living in an undeveloped area along the South Platte River in the city of Sheridan, where the average household income is just over $40,000 and the poverty rate is 21.5 percent, according to Census data.
A lot of current treatment for sex offenders now focuses on reintegrating them into their community, said Apryl Alexander, an assistant professor at the University of Denver graduate school of professional psychology. Alexander is director of the Denver Forensic Institute for Research, Service, and Training (Denver FIRST) Outpatient Competency Restoration Program.
“When we have these residency restrictions, you’re going to be displacing people,” making it hard to forge those connections that help prevent offenders from committing additional crimes, she said.
Homelessness makes reintegration practically impossible. It also creates significant difficulty for law enforcement agencies trying to monitor offenders, said Evans.
There is growing doubt about whether sex offender registries protect children—or anyone. “Virtually no well-controlled study shows any quantifiable benefit from the practice of notifying communities of sex offenders living in their midst,” Eli Lehrer, president of the nonprofit research organization R Street Institute, wrote recently in National Affairs, a publication of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
So why continue a policy that further concentrates disadvantage—in the form of fear and poverty—among low-income families?
Alexander didn’t have an answer. “That’s a question we need to pose to the public and to lawmakers.”