PORT ORANGE — Registered sex offender David Allen Hall lives 2,112 feet from Spruce Creek Elementary School.
He and other offenders who have served their sentences have been the targets in recent months of politicians including the Port Orange City Council who have enacted new regulations in the name of safety. Port Orange expanded its requirement for sex offenders to live further than 2,500 feet from schools, day-care centers and playgrounds, while in March Gov. Rick Scott signed a package of bills tightening penalties and prison sentences for sex offenders and South Daytona became the 10th city in Volusia County to increase living restrictions for sex offenders.
Yet Hall – who served 14 years for lewd or lascivious assault upon a child, a second-degree felony in 1996, after he was found guilty of molesting a 7-year-old child he was baby-sitting in New Smyrna Beach — remains in his home. Because of exemptions in local and state regulations, Hall can live anywhere he wants and believes that he should have that right. He said he has undergone rehabilitation and is trying to get his life back together, but the politicians’ efforts have only served to complicate those efforts.
“I just want to have a normal life like everyone else,” Hall said. “I’m not a risk to anyone.”
Some criminal justice advocates and researchers concur that recent law changes targeting sex offenders are costly to taxpayers and make it harder for ex-convicts to re-enter society and become productive citizens.
“This legislation is not based on research; it’s based on fear and political advantage,” said University of Miami Law Professor Tamara Rice Lave. “When legislators are passing laws, they are competing against each other to show who is toughest on crime and are choosing sex offenders because they are vilified.”
LIMITS TO THE LAWAfter Port Orange residents discovered that Howard Thomas Porter, a sex offender convicted of distributing child pornography, was living across the street from Sugar Mill Elementary School earlier this year, the City Council adopted an emergency ordinance to require sex offenders to live at least 2,500 feet from child care facilities, schools, parks and playgrounds — 1,500 feet farther than state law requires.
But Porter, like Hall and at least 21 other sex offenders in the city, can live wherever they want because state law exempts sex offenders convicted prior to 2003 in Florida and those convicted out of state before 2010. That means Porter, who was convicted by a New York court in 2004, could return to the duplex on McDonald Road. He moved to Jacksonville shortly after the ordinance passed, saying he was kicked out by his uncle who owned the duplex. Ordinances trying to close the exemption would likely face legal challenges, as would amending state law to apply statutes retroactively, officials said.
Port Orange Vice Mayor Don Burnette proposed requiring that red signs be placed on city-owned right of way outside the homes of sexual predators. Of the 64 sexual offenders living in Port Orange, four are sexual predators who have been convicted of first-degree felony sex crimes or two second-degree felony sex crimes.
The city of Perry in North Florida adopted a similar measure last year for its only sexual predator, who has since moved to Clearwater.
“We had several concerns from a legal standpoint and whether we could defend or enforce something like this,” Port Orange City Attorney Margaret Roberts said. “There isn’t a lot of guidance as far as other cases on record, but there could be a serious challenge.”
Burnette said it wasn’t fair to throw away taxpayer money in a potential court battle and thought it was better to raise awareness about sex offenders through an education campaign.
“I think the fact that we talked about it and brought it forward has caused parents to take a look at things,” Burnette said. “They are talking to their kids, and we have raised awareness and just by doing that I think we have accomplished a lot.”
Port Orange resident Margie Patchett, who has a grandchild at Sugar Mill Elementary, has organized several meetings with concerned parents. A legal challenge would be worth keeping offenders from preying on young children, she said.
“What better way to use our taxpayer dollars than defending ourselves to make children safe?”
Patchett said. “Even if one offender re-offends, that’s not good enough.”
Lave at the University of Miami said policies such as increasing living restrictions and placing signs in the yards of sex predators would make it more difficult for sex offenders to find jobs and integrate back into society.
“To live a law-abiding lifestyle you need a stable home and community,” she said. “If you don’t have that, you are more likely to commit crimes.”
PREVENTING RECIDIVISMIn 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice tracked 9,700 sex offenders and found that 5 percent of those offenders were arrested for another sex crime within three years. Researchers like Lave consider that rate low, pointing out the recidivism rate for offenders of all crimes is 43 percent and 67 percent for non-sex offenders released during that same time period.
Sex predators and violent offenders face additional oversight after serving their prison sentence. They are evaluated by a team of mental health professionals to determine the likelihood of repeating acts of sexual violence. If they are determined to be a violent predator, they will be sent to the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia to wait for a trial.
Senate Bill 524, which Scott signed last month, will require all offenders to be evaluated for civil commitment and require additional assessment and procedures for that determination as of July 1.
Hall served 13 years in the state’s civil commitment center after his 16-month prison sentence. He said the commitment center punishes offenders for laws they haven’t yet committed.
“They are setting people up for failure,” he said.
The push to strengthen sex offender laws came after Donald James Smith raped and murdered 8-year-old Cherish Perry Winkle in Jacksonville last June. Smith, who was convicted of kidnapping in 1993, was a registered sex offender with a criminal record, and he committed the crime three weeks after he was released from jail for an attempted child abuse conviction in 2012.
Lave said that cases like Smith’s are rare and making policies that paint all sex offenders with one broad stroke is unfair.
“Because so few people re-offend, we are locking up many people who aren’t dangerous,” she said.
But even if the chance of a sex offender committing future sex crimes is slim, that’s not a chance leaders like Burnette want to take.
“You can’t get into their minds so you don’t know what they are going to do,” Burnette said. “If we keep making it increasingly difficult for where they live there is the possibility that they will go off the grid completely.”
By Lacey McLaughlin