As college students settle into the fall semester, they may be surprised to learn that their off-campus neighbors may include paroled sex offenders.
Hundreds of communities in almost half the nation's states have banned registered sex offenders from living close to places frequented by children, such as playgrounds and elementary schools. But in most cases, those laws do not include the areas surrounding university campuses — so convicted sex offenders have moved in.
"A convicted sexual felon should not be able to live next door to your college student," said Jamie Ison, an Alabama state representative who sponsored a bill that would include universities under the legal definition of a school.
Some schools, such as the University of Washington, have sought to push sex offenders out of campus neighborhoods without the aid of legislation. The university is one of the first in the nation to begin establishing a buffer zone that would be off-limits to sex offenders.
Gov. Chris Gregoire raised concerns earlier this year with a landlord whose tenants included sex offenders. The landlord then ousted 13 of the 25 parolees living near the U. of Washington's Seattle campus.
But critics say banning convicted sex offenders from living within a certain area only creates different problems.
"Such laws and ordinances do not provide effective community protection, and they threaten offender stability and reintegration into society," said Jack King, the director of public affairs for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a group that opposes any residency restrictions on convicted sex offenders.
King said that those laws create an atmosphere where sex offenders trying to stay on the straight and narrow are forced into the street or back into jail for giving false information to police.
"Most sex offenders would rather die outside prison than die in prison," he said.
Washington's Department of Corrections is trying to avoid placing convicts near the Seattle campus. But that effort does not extend to the city's other colleges and universities, including two private four-year schools in areas with more sex offenders than the University of Washington.
"It's a real problem to find them a place to live," said Anne Fiala, a corrections administrator. "People end up living under bridges or in cars. We would prefer they have a roof over their heads."
Sex offenders are finding homes near universities nationwide. In Los Angeles, 60 offenders live within a mile of the University of Southern California. Nine live within a mile of Duke University in Durham, N.C. In Chicago, six can be found within a mile of Northwestern University. There are 93 paroled sex offenders within a two-mile radius of Jacksonville University in Florida .
Some states, like Arkansas, have tried to ban sex offenders from living close to institutions of higher learning. But Ison's bill died on the last day of the legislative session after critics raised doubts about whether there had been any reports of sex crimes instigated by registered sex offenders living near a campus.
A 1990 federal law, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, requires college security to know if there is a registered sex offender living on campus and, upon request, to inform students and staff where they can find that information.
"They don’t go out and openly publicize that — a lot of the reason for that is so much of the crime that they deal with on campus is student-on-student and with sexual assault," said Alison Kiss, program director for the organization Security on Campus. "Registered sex offenders don’t seem to be the problem."
Still some students insist it's the state's responsibility to protect them.
"I think student safety should be a top priority for all schools," said R.B. Walker, a University of Alabama senior who lobbied for the Arkansas bill. "Anything less is unacceptable."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.