Sex Offenders Question Broad Scope of Bans

Sex offender Steven Elwell thought he had paid his debt to society. He lost his job as a teacher and served a year in prison for having sex with a 16-year-old female student.

Now, after three years on the outside, Elwell wants to move his wife and two children into a bigger home. They must find a house, though, that's not encompassed by sex offender-free zones being established by communities across New Jersey.

At least four towns ban sex offenders from living near schools, parks and playgrounds and others are considering similar restrictions. At least 14 states have such laws.

"We're outgrowing our house fairly quick," said Elwell, 34. "If we have to move, we'll have to find a map, get a plot of land and figure out where (the pedophile-free zone) doesn't reach."

Elwell, who now makes his living owning a pizzeria, doesn't expect sympathy. But he argues the ordinances are too broad, providing a false sense of security at the expense of ex-cons already kept on a tight leash by Megan's Law, the pioneering New Jersey sex offender registry law.

A growing number of critics agree with him.

Restricting where sex offenders can live is misdirected and may be unconstitutional, say civil liberties advocates, defense attorneys and experts in the field.

"These laws have absolutely nothing to do with the protection of children and everything to do with scare tactics, cheap political points and an anti-intellectualism that is driving public policy today," said John S. Furlong, a defense attorney who brought the first court challenge to Megan's Law (search) .

Megan's Law was enacted in response to the 1994 slaying of 7-year-old Megan Kanka (search) by a sex offender who lived across the street from her. The law prompted dozens of other states to pass similar laws, requiring released sex offenders to register with police and for residents of the neighborhood to be notified.

High profile cases such as the slaying of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford (search) in Florida, allegedly by a sex offender who lived near her home, have prompted lawmakers nationwide to begin establishing "buffer zones" around places where children congregate.

Concerns about the constitutionality of the bans have not stopped the passage of the laws, in part because of political pressure.

"It's pretty tough, if someone introduces an ordinance like this, to vote no," said Joseph Scarpelli, mayor of Brick, which adopted its ordinance Aug. 1.

The ordinance added bus stops to the list of locations off limits to offenders and included a 2,500-foot buffer zone. With more than 2,000 school bus stops in the town, the measure effectively bars sex offenders from living anywhere in Brick.

State Attorney General Peter Harvey has said he expects court challenges to the ordinances, although none has been filed.

For now, Elwell is working at his pizzeria, attending support group meetings for sex offenders and answering to his state-appointed community supervision officer.

Elwell said he plans to file a civil suit challenging the constitutionality of one or more of the laws targeting sex offenders, which he says unfairly lump all sex offenders together.

"I see this as adult peer pressure," he said. "Like high school kids drinking alcohol, all these towns are seeing what other towns are doing and doing it."