Saturday, August 16, 2008

SEATTLE (AP) | Lawmakers and college administrators are trying to shut paroled sex offenders out of one of the few places they can still live - student neighborhoods near major U.S. universities.

More than 23 states ban registered sex offenders from living close to schools or other places frequented by children. But nowhere is that protection extended to the areas surrounding college campuses.

“A convicted sexual felon should not be able to live next-door to your college student,” said Alabama state Rep. Jamie Ison, a Republican who sponsored a bill that would include universities under the legal definition of a school.

Online databases of sex-offender addresses show that the issue affects universities across the country - wherever there are student neighborhoods with plentiful apartments and cheap rent.

In Los Angeles, 60 offenders live within a mile of the University of Southern California. Nine live within a mile of Duke University in Durham, N.C. In Chicago, six can be found within a mile of Northwestern University. Within a two-mile radius of Jacksonville University in Florida are 93 paroled sex offenders.

Mrs. Ison and others are especially mindful of the risks facing young college women.

“They’re living away from home for the first time,” she said. “They’re staying out late. I know they’re drinking. We need to ensure their safety.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire raised concerns earlier this year with a landlord whose tenants included sex offenders. The landlord ousted 13 of the 25 parolees living near the Seattle campus, which was one of the first in the nation to begin establishing a buffer zone that would be off-limits to sex offenders.

But Anne Fiala, a corrections administrator, said that too many of these kinds of residency laws can make it “a real problem to find [sex offenders] a place to live.”

“People end up living under bridges or in cars. We would prefer they have a roof over their heads,” she said.

The Alabama bill died on the last day of the legislative session after critics raised doubts about whether there had been any reports of sex crimes instigated by a registered sex offender living near a campus.

At Jacksonville University in Florida, at least one official says that college students are old enough to protect themselves and that he opposes legislation barring offenders from the school’s urban campus.

“For the most part, these people have done their time,” Public Safety Director Michael Kanaby said. “We’re better off educating students and preparing them to take accountability for their own public security.”

Convicted sex offender Chris Swires lived near the University of Oregon for close to four years while completing his degree. A landlord eventually evicted him because of complaints from neighbors who learned through an online sex-offender registry that he had been convicted of molesting children in 1998.

Mr. Swires, 33, is concerned that new laws would only make it harder to find housing.

“I think it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s going to make things 10 times worse,” he said.

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