Friday, August 7, 2009

Get rid of sex offender shantytown

It has taken three years for Miami-Dade County officials to focus on shutting down the shantytown of sex offenders forced to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
Three years of pass-the-buck finger-pointing, two lawsuits and embarrassing national and international media attention to this state-and-local conspiracy of inaction don't add up to leadership.

It's Umoja Village redux. Remember the illegal shantytown that burned to the ground in 2007 after homeless advocates took over a vacant lot in Miami? City officials tolerated this atrocity by blaming previous court rulings that they said tied their hands on moving out the homeless. Yet the health and safety of residents demanded action.

Tackle local ordinances

The causeway shantytown debacle should have taken three days -- tops -- to get state and local officials working together to find places for these felons, most of them on probation for sex crimes, to live without endangering children. This would mean tackling local ordinances throughout South Florida that render these felons homeless because they cannot live within 2,500 feet of a school, park and in some instances bus stops.

In three years the homeless camp swelled from a handful of mostly male felons to as many as 100. Good intentions to protect children turned into a public-safety and health crisis, as Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle astutely points out. Felons are using the bay as a toilet, rotted wood as housing, and state probation officers continue to steer them there as if a bridge were a legal address.

There's plenty of blame to go around: The legislature passed a 1,000-foot-buffer zone but then allowed cities and counties to go beyond that -- with no distinction between true sexual predators and offenders convicted for lesser crimes, such as public exposure. The state Department of Corrections has passed the buck to the local governments, which in turn blame the state for not finding a home for these felons.

Lack of leadership all around

And Gov. Charlie Crist? Why hasn't he shown leadership instead of insisting it's a local problem?

One ``solution'' under consideration -- warehousing the men at an old jail near the Golden Glades interchange -- simply moves the problem to another location without addressing the unworkability of the 2,500-foot buffer or the state's role in allowing it.

The ACLU is right to press Miami-Dade County's broad buffer in court. The city of Miami followed with its own lawsuit against the state this month. But all of these legal efforts could disappear -- and save taxpayers money -- if state and local officials would simply deal with a bad law and fix it.

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