IOWA CITY, Iowa – One after another, cities and towns across Iowa are rushing to shut the door to child molesters.
In the past month, nearly two dozen cities and counties, from Des Moines to tiny Garrison, have approved or considered restrictions on where convicted sex offenders may live.
The rush came after a federal appeals court, in the first such ruling in the nation, upheld a 2002 Iowa state law that bars sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day care center. Emboldened by the ruling, Iowa cities and towns are drawing their own buffer zones around parks, playgrounds, trails, swimming pools, libraries and school bus stops.
“We’ve seen similar responses in Florida and New Jersey, but what’s happening in Iowa may be a bit more extreme, simply because they are going beyond the state law,” said Scott Matson, research fellow with the Center for Sex Offender Management, a branch of the U.S. Justice Department.
The new restrictions have had – or will have – the effect of making entire small towns off limits, and several sex offenders have been forced to move.
Some experts warn that the restrictions will only make sex offenders more desperate and dangerous by making it harder for them to establish stable lives and relationships and hold down steady jobs.
“They might as well just exile all of them … banish them from the state,” said Don Santee, a 30-year-old registered offender who was forced to move out of the Shellsburg home he shares with his wife and three children because he was convicted at age 17 of assault with intent to commit sexual abuse. “I am being punished again. I’m trying to keep this in all good faith. But I’m waiting for the world to wake up and realize this isn’t the way to deal with sex offenders.”
In the meantime, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union is challenging the Iowa statute in what could become the first U.S. Supreme Court test of sex offender residency laws now being used in some form by as many as 14 states.
Iowa lawmakers from both parties have said they will fight any attempt to water down Iowa’s law, already considered one of the toughest among the states with such laws.
“If the result is sex offenders leaving Iowa, we think that’s good news,” Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal said.
Last month, Ely, a town of 1,500 without a single school or day care center, became the first Iowa city to pass tougher new rules. It banned sex offenders from living near the city park, playground and library – in effect, making nearly the entire town a sex-offender-free zone.
“We felt a little vulnerable,” said Chris Johnson, an Ely resident and mother of two. “For a lot of towns like ours, we can become the only place available for sex offenders.”
Garrison, a town of just 413 people about 20 miles northeast of Cedar Rapids, made it illegal for sex offenders to live within 2,000 feet of the city’s only park and playground, library and two school bus stops. Des Moines, the state’s biggest city, drew a line around parks, swimming pools and recreational trails.
Over the summer, several cities and townships across the nation tried to restrict where sex offenders can live after a series of child abductions and murders. In Florida, Miami Beach created a 2,500-buffer zone around schools, day care centers and parks, making nearly the entire city off limits.
“What happens is almost a competition among communities for more restrictive laws,” said Jill Levenson, professor and researcher on sex offender and criminal justice policies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. “The trouble is as we create all these new obstacles, we may be making them more dangerous.”
Iowa modeled its law after Alabama’s, which shares the 2,000-foot restriction with Arkansas and Oklahoma. The ICLU later sued on behalf of more than a dozen sex offenders, arguing that the rule infringed on the right of offenders to live where they want and punished them after they had paid their debt to society.
A federal judge agreed and blocked the law, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed over the summer, saying Iowa lawmakers had the authority to set limitations to protect its residents.
Last month, the ICLU filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to hear the case.