A Critical Look at South Carolina by Deena A. Isom Scott and Deanna Cann
Hundreds of South Carolina sex offenders are released every year from prison. A key barrier to these offenders re-entering society, is finding housing. South Carolina, like some 30 states across the country, has implemented restrictions on where the registered sex offenders may live. Because there is a lack of viable housing options, many of the offenders wind up homeless.
Utilizing data from South Carolina’s Sex Offender Registry (SORR), Deena Isom Scott, assistant professor, African American Studies and criminal justice, co-authored a paper, “Sex Offender Residence Restrictions and Homelessness: A Critical Look at South Carolina,” and the study describes patterns of homelessness among this population.
The research examines whether the state’s implementation of its sex offender registry has any effect on the proportion of registered sex offenders reported as homeless.
In a word, yes. Isom Scott and her research partner Deanna Cann found that there is a strong association between the implementation of residence restriction policies and rates of homelessness for registered sex offenders in South Carolina.
South Carolina implemented its sex offender registry in 1995, and its resident restrictions policy in 2011.
That policy was put in place to restrict offenders from getting access to potential victims. The offenders are prohibited from living within a specific distance (within one thousand feet) of schools, parks and other areas where children congregate.
The study found that the restrictions result in offenders clustering within certain areas, violating their living rules, or becoming homeless.
Isom Scott said, “Increasing rates of homelessness among this population is an especially troubling consequence of offender registry policies, as unstable housing is robustly linked to offending in criminological research, both among general offenders and sexual offenders.”
If offenders violate that boundary, they’re given a 30-day notice to move, or face up to 30 days in jail for a first offense and/or a one thousand dollar fine. Repeat violators face up to five years in prison, and a fine up to five thousand dollars.
South Carolina’s registered sex-offenders range in age from 19 to 96 years-old. The average age is 50, and only two percent are women. Most offenders are white (57 percent), or black (40 percent).
Most of the offenders have been on the registry an average of eleven years, with most registering prior to 2011, when the sex offender residential restrictions registry was implemented.
The study also revealed several significant differences between sex offenders who have or have not experienced homelessness. Drilling down, the homeless offender is likely a black man, who’s been on the registry for a long time, and moves around a lot.
Researchers Isom Scott and Cann said, “Our findings reveal a strong association between the implementation of South Carolina’s SORR and the proportion of homeless registered sex offenders. Relatedly, despite statistical controls, we cannot definitively state that the increase in registered sex offender homelessness is caused by the implementation of the state’s SORR policy.”
State law applies the residency restrictions only to offenders who have committed crimes against minors, however, local ordinances and the state’s Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services apply the policy to all sex offenders, so it’s likely that a large number in the research sample, was subject to the residency restrictions.
“With the growing amount of empirical evidence that indicates the faultiness of residence restrictions and other sex offender policies, it is curious and troubling that lawmakers continue to create and support these laws. It is likely that public support for punitive sex offender policies (Mancini, Shields, Mears, & Beaver, 2010; Socia, Dum, & Rydberg, 2017) plays a large role in this phenomenon,” said Isom Scott and Cann.
Isom Scott and Cann would like policymakers to rethink these residency restriction laws and change them to reflect empirical evidence based on the nature of sexual offending. They said that change could bring about meaningful reductions in homelessness, associated with being a registered sex offender.