Friday, April 13, 2007

Sex Offenders' Bridge Hideaway Irks Leaders


Miami leaders Thursday called it ''horrible'' and ''morally wrong'' that a handful of convicted sexual offenders are sleeping under the Julia Tuttle Causeway because a local residency ordinance left them unable to find housing.

And the city asked state lawmakers in Tallahassee to do something about it.

The offenders' troll-like living arrangement under a bridge has received national media attention. The bridge spans Biscayne Bay, linking Miami to Miami Beach.

While voicing unhappiness over the situation, Miami city commissioners made no attempt to repeal the city's residency law, which prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a park or school.

Commissioners said to do so wouldn't make a difference because similar countywide rules would remain in effect. Instead, the city asked the Legislature to tackle the politically sensitive issue.

The state Department of Corrections, charged with supervising offenders after their release, said no offenders were ever assigned to sleep under the Tuttle. The department simply OK'd the location because offenders said it was just about impossible to find housing.

'That's government proactively saying, `This is where you belong,' '' City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said. Sarnoff called it morally wrong no matter the crime.

''Horrible,'' said Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.

A flurry of laws passed across South Florida in 2005 imposed the 2,500-foot distance requirement. State law requires only a 1,000-foot distance. Department of Corrections spokesman Robby Cunningham said that if local governments had not gone beyond that rule, ``then these individuals would have a place to live, all of them.''

Distance requirements have come under mounting criticism in Iowa, where they began five years ago. A proposal there would create somewhat less restrictive ''child safe zones'' around schools or day care facilities -- areas offenders would have limited access to.

Last year, the Iowa County Attorneys Association released a five-page statement saying there was no proof the state's 2,000-foot residency restriction did anything to protect children. But it did make it both harder to track offenders and rehabilitate them. ''In fact, 80 to 90 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by a relative or acquaintance'' unaffected by distance restrictions, the statement said.

Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, who pushed for restrictions in South Florida, has had ''no change of heart,'' Dermer Senior Advisor A.C. Weinstein said Thursday.

The Florida Legislature may be willing to tweak, though not eliminate, the rules. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee Tuesday will debate a bill to replace all local laws with a statewide 1,500-foot buffer zone, said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres.

Rep. David Simmons, R-Maitland is sponsoring the House version of the bill.

Aronberg said he hopes the bill will prevent situations like the one in Miami and keep sex offenders from avoiding reporting requirements because they can't find a place to live.

''These are dangerous criminals, and we need to know where they are at all times,'' said Aronberg, who is a former assistant attorney general.

"Expecting them to remain under bridges their entire lives is unreal and dangerous.''

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