There's no doubt that a ban on sex offenders living within 1,200 feet of Fargo's schools or parks would be popular.
Dave Piepkorn, the city commissioner backing that idea, said the reaction he's had from Fargo residents has been "overwhelmingly positive," and in a nonscientific online Forum poll last week, 86 percent of the 2,188 votes were in favor.
"The majority of people have said it makes sense," Piepkorn said.
The enthusiasm explains why sex offender residency laws have grown quickly in the decade or so since they were first enacted. A report by the Center for Sex Offender Management, a project of the Department of Justice, states that from 2000 to 2008, the number of states with restrictions for sex offender housing went from five to nearly 30.
Yet Fargo's police chief and the head of an area nonprofit that works with victims of sexual violence are both dubious about the effectiveness of such laws. And they're not alone.
Studies of sex offender residency laws in areas they've been tried haven't found any positive effect on recidivism rates. Authorities who deal with sex offenders - police, prosecutors and probation and parole agents - often end up opposing the buffer-zone restrictions.
"It's almost totally driven by emotion," said Richard Tewksbury, a University of Louisville professor of justice administration who studies sex offender laws. "Without exception, all the research shows there is no impact."
Pushed to margins
Gary Davis is a Level III sex offender, a 65-year-old who must register for life because of two indecent exposure convictions in North Dakota, the latest in Cass County in 2007. Level III is the designation for sex offenders who are deemed the highest risk to re-offend.
He had difficulty finding a place to live at first, being turned down by a handful of landlords before ending up at 1122 2nd Ave. S. in Fargo - one of four Level III offenders in the apartment building.
Davis has no complaints about the small apartment, though he said his hopes for rehabilitation would be better if he were elsewhere.
"You're in the place you are trying to get out of," he said.
It doesn't appear the building Davis lives in would be affected by the 1,200-foot law. City planners are still working on a map plotting the restricted areas, but a similar map produced by The Forum indicates the largest swaths of area left open to sex offenders would be downtown and in the industrial parts of the city straddling Main Avenue between Interstate 29 and 25th Street. Much of the city would be off-limits.
That's one of the troubles with broad bans on where sex offenders can live, said Tewksbury. If they can find a place at all, it's in "the poorest, most disorganized, least desirable areas of the city," he said, where it is more common for children to be unsupervised.
It also tends to make it harder for sex offenders to access treatment, find jobs and have a support system - all keys to crime-free life.
"We simply make life more difficult in the important ways," Tewksbury said.
Davis agreed, saying that isolation makes his recovery much harder.
"The only way to be back in society is to be around people," he said.
If the law pushes offenders away, Piepkorn said, that's fine with him. That's partially the point, he said.
"I think we'd be sending a message that convicted sex offenders aren't welcome in Fargo. That's the bottom line, and I don't think there's anything wrong with saying that."
Police Chief Keith Ternes said that sort of take on sex criminals is overhyped.
"We've put a scarlet letter on those people," he said. "It's not the only offender out there to be concerned about."
Hardship without upside
Ternes is worried the 1,200-foot ordinance could lead more offenders to stop registering, as they must do under state law, which would in turn take up more of the police's time.
That's what happened in Iowa, one of the first places where offenders were barred from living by schools or parks. The state repealed the law upon the urging of law enforcement officials. It's a case Ternes has pointed out publicly.
Tewksbury said he has conducted a study of re-offending rates in Iowa during the time the law was in place, though it hasn't yet been published. Recidivism was unchanged, though the law put a greater burden on both the offenders and the authorities responsible for keeping tabs on them.
"It poses many hardships, with no real possibility of benefits," he said.
The chief is also skeptical that a geographical separation between places kids go and offenders' homes does much to keep children safe.
Piepkorn said the law's main purpose is to protect the most vulnerable people in society - children.
Yet a sex offender who's looking to strike again can simply travel to those same areas, Ternes said. Also, a study in Minnesota showed that's a rare occurrence.
That study of 224 repeat sex offenders from 1990 to 2005 found that 16 of them made contact with a juvenile victim within a mile of their home, but none of the contacts happened near a school, park or playground.
Piepkorn said he thinks some researchers "have an agenda" to support rights for sex offenders and said he's been getting most of his negative feedback from out-of-state groups.
As for Ternes' opposition to the residency ordinance, Piepkorn said: "He just has a different perspective. I have no problem with disagreement."
Greg Diehl, the executive director of the local Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, said though he can see the rationale of Piepkorn's proposal, he doesn't think much of the 1,200-foot law, either. He'd rather see new approaches implemented.
"I'm not sure that this would solve a whole lot of anything," Diehl said. "The biggest issue is there are no easy answers."
"At least it's being talked about," Diehl added.
'A positive effect'
Davis said he doesn't understand why he would be barred from living near the places children go since he has no record of abusing minors.
"Sex offender: That's just a word," he said. "It should be based on the charge."
That's also what Tewksbury suggested: reserving residency limits to those who've abused children. Otherwise, buffer laws rely on the assumption that all sex offenders target kids.
Piepkorn said he wants to fashion the law based on how it had worked in other places. "You want it to have a positive effect," he said.
He said he's leaning toward proposing the city law only apply to the Level III and medium-risk Level II offenders - roughly 25 percent of Fargo's 155 registered sex offenders.
Piepkorn said he would potentially consider having the law only apply to those convicted of crimes against children.
City Attorney Erik Johnson is researching the laws enacted in other areas and working on a draft ordinance, Piepkorn said. A small group working on the proposal - which includes Ternes - plans to meet next week to take up the issue.
The proposal wouldn't be in front of the commission until after that, Piepkorn said. He expects the debate about it to be robust.
"I will guarantee that will happen," he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535