Sex Offenders Segregated at Shelters

Friday, July 14, 2006

By BRIAN SKOLOFF, Associated Press Writer

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hurricane shelters have become the latest places to clamp down on sex offenders, with a growing number of states and counties taking steps to keep them away from other evacuees.

It's a daunting and so far unclear task that means checking all evacuees against sexual offender databases or simply relying on the offenders to identify themselves.

"We don't want people to think they're fleeing one evil and landing in with another,"said Lt. Ron Curtis with the sheriff's office in Lee County, one of at least seven Florida counties requiring registered sex offenders be segregated from the public in separate shelters."The guy in the next bunk, if that's a sexual offender, are you going to be able to sleep there with your children?"

No official interviewed could recall a sex offender attacking someone at a storm shelter, but most said they simply wanted to remove the threat.

In hurricane-vulnerable Florida, that means the nearly 8,400 sex offenders currently on probation must ride out storms at state prisons unless they have an alternate residence to retreat to or their counties have a shelter for them.

In Louisiana, state law says they must sheltered separately from the public and cannot stay in any trailer park or hotel room funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Texas has no law but state Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw has said that sex offenders will be separated. And while Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Alabama have no such laws, that soon could change as more counties and Legislatures follow the leads of others. Officials in these states couldn't say whether some counties already had the ordinances.

"It's still new but we're seeing more and more counties trying to do similar things,"said Jacqueline Byers, research director for the National Association of Counties.

Some civil rights advocates fear the policies go too far and fail to distinguish between violent repeat offenders and those whose crimes may not be as shocking.

"There's no distinctions made between people who have in fact harmed someone in the past versus someone who is on the registry because they had consensual sex as a teenager with another teenager,"said Sara Totonchi, public policy director for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.

"Why not keep all people with criminal records out? Why are we singling out this one offense?"added Howard Simon, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida."I'm not against tough law enforcement, but we've got to be tough and smart."

But Lee County's Curtis said keeping sex offenders isolated actually helps protect them.

"If you put them in regular shelters, word gets out and now potentially they're the ones that are going to be in danger,"he said.

Louisiana state Rep. Steve Scalise said his state's sex offender policy, signed into law this year, grew out of the problem of unaccounted-for sex offenders in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"You don't want a sex offender in a shelter with a bunch of children and yet that happened,"he said.

But more than a month into hurricane season, many places haven't determined where they will put sex offenders or how they will identify them.

FEMA questions how Louisiana will keep offenders out of federally funded trailer parks and hotels, citing the agency's nondiscrimination policy.

"We serve all disaster victims,"said agency spokesman Aaron Walker."We can work with states and locals in identifying sex offenders who are receiving assistance from FEMA, but it's important to remember that FEMA isn't a law enforcement agency."

And the American Red Cross, which operates many shelters, won't provide names of those in its shelter to law enforcement in order to protect evacuees'privacy, spokesman Joshua Glanzer said.

If asked, he said agency workers would match evacuees on shelter lists to sex offender names provided by authorities,"but we will not hand over the sign-in sheets to law enforcement."Texas will not reveal how its policy will work or how offenders will be identified"to ensure the plan is effective,"said Rachael Novier, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry.

Kenny Shaw, emergency management chief for Dallas, said the process of singling out sex offenders is murky, at best.

"How do you know if someone is a sex offender if they just don't walk up and tell you?"Shaw said.

In Mississippi's Harrison County, where Katrina leveled the coast from Biloxi to Gulfport, officials say they'd like to segregate sex offenders, but without a uniform system it could be nearly impossible.

"If we know they are a sex offender, we are not going to put that person in a building with children,"said Joe Spraggins, county emergency management director."Everybody wants to do the right thing, but I don't know any way to do it right now."

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