Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Punishment for Homelessness: Life in Prison

I’ve posted several times now about the legal conundrums faced by convicted sex offenders. In this guest column, an attorney highlights the case of Larry Moore Jr. of Georgia, facing life in prison because he could not provide the state with an address.

Guest commentary by Ezekiel Edwards

Should anyone be sentenced to the rest of their lives in prison because they are homeless?

Some people think so.

At least when it comes to the most vilified people in our society -- sex offenders. Sex offenders nationwide are carefully monitored, the public is privy to where they live, and, like many people with criminal records, they are barred from a bevy of employment and housing options.

To be sure, sex offenses should be dealt with seriously, and certain sex offenders require close surveillance. However, some states' concerns over sex offenders has transformed into outright and unacceptable animus, this time in the form of strict new sex offender registry laws.

Take Georgia, for instance, and the case of Larry Moore, Jr., in Augusta. Under state law, Mr. Moore, a sex offender, is prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of a church, school, school bus stop, day care center, church, and swimming pool. That does not leave a lot of places for Mr. Moore to reside. The options are even more limited when considering that almost every shelter in the entire state refuses to accept sex offenders.

Georgia also requires sex offenders to register an address. But given how few places the law allows sex offenders to live, and given that Georgia, like most states, invests far too little resources in helping people released from prison find housing and work, some sex offenders, like some prisoners generally, cannot find housing after prison, or lose their housing, and thus cannot report a legal address.

If it happens once, the result might be some jail time, or additional probation. But if it happens a second time, even if the underlying cause is homelessness, the punishment is life in prison. In other words, the penalty is harsher than if the offender had committed another sex offense.

Just ask Mr. Moore. In 2005, he failed to register as required, spent time in jail awaiting the disposition of his case, and eventually pled guilty. He was released in March 2006, and was left with two places to live that met the law's requirements, both hotels. He registered twice upon his release, registered again in April and June, twice again in July, when the new law took effect. But his job at a fast food restaurant did not pay enough to cover the cost of the hotel, and he was forced to move out.

Homeless, he could not provide the state with an address. Having been convicted of his second violation, Mr. Moore now faces mandatory life in prison under Georgia's law. A lawsuit has been brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union on his behalf.

Some think putting Mr. Moore in jail for the rest of his life is warranted, simply because he is a sex offender. Others argue that it is misleading to say that his life sentence stems from being homeless, as it ignores his original conviction for a sex offense. But no one is ignoring that Mr. Moore is a sex offender -- that is why he is subject to Georgia's cruel and unusual punishment in the first place. But his latest sentence is not for the sex offense, it is for failing to register an address as a sex offender.

Some suggest that sex offenders like Mr. Moore try to use homelessness disingenuously as a defense at trial. First, there are tens of thousands of homeless people in the United States, and included are some sex offenders. Second, under Georgia law, raising the defense of homelessness, even for those who are actually homeless, will always prove futile, as it was for Mr. Moore.

Some have suggested that Mr. Moore should have just found some rural place in Georgia to live. But this ignores the financial and social difficulties involved in moving, particularly for someone who is destitute, and also essentially condones urban cleansing of sex offenders.

Such drastic measures only further undermine sex offenders’ limited residential and employment stability, thereby only increasing the risk of recidivism. Yet unrealistic ostracism is exactly what Georgia and some like-minded folk desire: forcing anyone convicted of a sexual offense to (1) leave the state; (2) languish in prison; or, like in other states, (3) be relegated to the outskirts or underbellies of society. Florida, for instance, authorized five offenders to live under a bridge in Miami after they were unable to find suitable housing that they could afford. In Iowa, offenders have tried complying with the registry law by offering addresses such as "rest area mile marker 149" or "RV in old Kmart parking lot."

It is unconscionable to throw people in jail for the rest of their lives for being homeless and unable to secure an address for sex offender registry purposes. Herding sex offenders under bridges, or into rest areas and parking lots, thereby keeping them outside of the community and yet easily monitored (similar to, say, livestock), is degrading and inhumane.

Making simple residency insurmountable or impractical is not the answer to reducing sexual offenses. Instead, states should implement longer-term, more intelligent, and more humane strategies by paving clear paths to employment, self-sufficiency, and stability and making treatment programs widely available while continuing careful monitoring. If monitoring is difficult because someone is homeless, then the burden should be on the state to provide housing, or to relax the residency restrictions.

This column was originally posted August 14, 2007 at the blog of Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Reposted with written permission of the author.

Ezekiel R. Edwards is a Criminal Justice Fellow at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy and a Staff Attorney and Mayer Brown Eyewitness Fellow at The Innocence Project in New York.

 
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