A Law for the Sex Offenders Under a Miami Bridge

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Charles Ommanney / Getty

Squatters live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami

The Julia Tuttle Causeway is one of Miami's most beautiful bridge spans, connecting the city to Miami Beach through palm-tree-filled islands fringed with red mangroves. But beneath the tranquil expanse sits one of South Florida's most contentious social problems: a large colony of convicted sex offenders, thrown into homelessness in recent years by draconian residency restrictions that leave them scant available or affordable housing. They live in tents and shacks built from cast-off supplies, clinging to pylons and embankments, with no running water, electricity or bathrooms. Not even during a recent cold spell, when nighttime temperatures dropped into the 30s, could they move into temporary lodging.

Miami is hardly the only place in the U.S. where registered sex offenders can't find shelter. In Georgia, a group living in tents in the woods near Atlanta was recently ordered out of even that refuge. But the Miami shantytown, with as many as 70 residents, is the largest of its kind, thanks to a frenzied wave of local laws passed in Florida after the grisly 2005 rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by a convicted sex offender. The state had already been the first to enact residency rules for convicted predators, barring them in 1995 from living within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds and other children's sites. Municipalities, with questionable authority, then adopted even tougher ordinances — there are 156 of them so far. Miami Beach, for example, bars offenders from living within 2,500 feet of all school-bus stops, effectively precluding them from living anywhere in the city.

But with the disturbing bridge colony putting Miami under increased national scrutiny — it has managed the improbable feat of arousing sympathy for pedophiles — Miami-Dade County hopes to return some sanity to the issue. A new law takes effect on Monday that supersedes the county's 24 municipal ordinances, many of which make it all but impossible for offenders to find housing. It keeps the 2,500-feet restriction, but applies it only to schools. It also sets a 300-foot restriction to keep offenders from loitering near anyplace where children gather, which many experts call a more practical solution than harsh residency restrictions.

County officials, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, hope the law will prod states and perhaps even the U.S. Congress to craft more-uniform laws to prevent the kind of residency-restriction arms race that Florida let local governments wage. "The safety of Floridians has suffered as local politicians have tried to one-up each other with policies that have resulted in colonies of homeless sex offenders left to roam our streets," says state senator Dave Aronberg, a Democrat running for state attorney general. The excessive rules, he adds, "have the effect of driving offenders underground and off law enforcement's radar." Aronberg is co-sponsoring a new bill that would establish uniform statewide residency rules fixed at 1,750 feet — studies show that in many cities, over 50% of available housing is within 2,500 feet of schools — and include the sweeping no-loitering zones.

Theoretically, Florida's 1995 legislation should have pre-empted more-severe local ordinances. Yet most state politicians didn't want to be seen as coming to the rescue of sex offenders. Governor Charlie Crist, now a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate who is facing a more conservative opponent for the GOP nomination, has largely ignored the municipal laws as well as the Julia Tuttle eyesore, even as it has become a cautionary symbol of how restrictions can backfire.

Ironically, it was one of residency restrictions' fiercest proponents who helped push the softer Miami-Dade law through the county commission. Ron Book, a powerful Florida lobbyist, began his crusade for tougher residency laws after discovering that his daughter was molested by a nanny for years. Now, realizing that homelessness makes offenders potentially more dangerous, Book has shifted his campaign to the kind of child-safety, no-loitering zones that are built into the Miami-Dade measure. "Child-safety zones [should] have been a critical component of what we did [before]," says Book. "We just didn't think of them." Book, who chairs Miami-Dade's Homeless Trust, which works to combat homelessness in the county, helped write the new state bill. Even so, because he was so involved in promoting the original residency restrictions, the offenders under the bridge still call their colony Bookville.

Many of them, however, are skeptical about the new county ordinance. Kevin Morales, 42, has lived under the bridge since 2007, and he doubts that the colony's population, which has numbered more than 70 since he arrived, will thin out anytime soon. "Honestly, I don't think it is going to make any difference," says Morales, who sleeps in a van and works at his family's business by day. "And the loitering [rules] are just another way to punish us." Morales was convicted of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 16 as well as false imprisonment. Although he has been released from probation and has even received court permission to have contact with his victim (who has O.K.'d it as well), he says that under the no-loitering guidelines, "I don't know where I can go. Can I still take my grandchildren to the park?"

Research by agencies like the Minnesota Department of Corrections has found that a stable home is the strongest guarantor of sound post-incarceration behavior among sex offenders. What's more, Jill Levenson, an expert on sex offenders, says the no-loitering zones are more effective than unreasonable residency restrictions aimed at keeping predators away from kids. "They provide an increased public-safety benefit," says Levenson, a professor of human services at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. "One of the biggest flaws in the residency restrictions is that the offenders couldn't sleep near these places but could wander around them during the day. Loitering zones go a long way in managing risk and [preventing] predators from cultivating relationships with children."

Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson Greti Plessinger agrees, saying, "We are glad that [Miami-Dade County] has taken the lead on this." But Miami-Dade is just one of Florida's 67 counties. Eventually the state, and maybe even Washington, will have to assume that lead. Keeping sex offenders under the bridge may be good short-term politics, but it may well threaten the long-term safety of kids.