DALLAS – A broad legal challenge has led more than 20 towns in Texas to ease restrictions over the last few months on where sex offenders can live instead of fight a costly battle in court.
While other states, including neighboring Oklahoma, continue to push offenders away from some neighborhoods, about 45 Texas towns received letters in November from the group Texas Voices for Reason and Justice demanding they repeal residency restrictions. The nonprofit, which is critical of sex offender laws it considers ineffective, also has sued 14 towns and has a powerful ally -- the state attorney general's office.
"We advocate an individual assessment on a case-by-case basis to determine if someone is a threat to the community," said Richard Gladden, an attorney for the group. "The myth that people who commit sex offenses just generally are unable to control their sexual conduct is just that, a myth."
At issue is how Texas' small towns are differentiated from larger ones. Communities with fewer than 5,000 people are "general law" towns, which can't adopt an ordinance that the Legislature hasn't permitted. Dozens of these smaller communities have restricted where sex offenders can live -- usually with the purpose of keeping them away from schools and other places children gather -- but only later learned they've run afoul of state rules.
"Unless the Legislature expressly authorizes it, a general-law municipality may not adopt an ordinance restricting where a registered sex offender may live," according to a 2007 opinion signed by then-AG Greg Abbott, who's now Texas governor. Larger cities fall under "home rule," which means they have "a constitutional right of self-government," Abbott wrote.
But the Texas Municipal League, which provides support services and lobbies on behalf of cities, is pushing for legislative action that reverses Abbott's decision.
"It's new where a general-law city has had its authority taken away by an attorney general's opinion," executive director Bennett Sandlin said.
The state allows leaders in general law towns to fashion municipal rules for "the good government, peace or order of the municipality," Sandlin said, such as zoning and noise control laws. But state officials can step in when local laws overreach.
Three cities have recently repealed their sex offender laws, Gladden said, and city leaders in Krum, which is north of Fort Worth, are considering doing the same.
Krum Mayor Ronald Harris Jr. said litigation prevents him from talking about whether his town will repeal its law, but he criticized the Legislature for not acting on behalf of small-town Texas.
"They're saying that we as a small town don't have a right to have an ordinance to protect our children and our residents, but larger towns do," Harris said.
The city manager of Alvarado, which is south of Fort Worth, has told WFAA-TV in Dallas that although residents expressed concern about repealing the law, they know valuable town money could evaporate under the weight of a lawsuit.
"They're disappointed that we're not able to regulate our own town," said Clint Davis, who did not respond to a message left by The Associated Press for comment.
Other states have been looking to increase restrictions on housing for sex offenders. Last year, Montana lawmakers made it a felony for high-risk offenders to live or work in some areas, and Oklahoma added playgrounds and parks maintained by a homeowners association to the list of places prohibiting offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Gladden argues myriad laws aren't necessarily benefiting public safety.
In many cases, he said, an innocent "Romeo and Juliet relationship" can result in a young man being prosecuted for having sex with a minor and labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, federal statistics show the overwhelming number of sex abuse cases involving children are perpetrated by a family member or friend of the family, and not an anonymous stranger, he said.
"Obviously, people are concerned about their kids and sometimes people are so overwhelmed by their natural instinct to protect their children that they don't necessarily use their heads and see what works and doesn't work," Gladden said.
But Sandlin argues the residency restrictions are common-sense measures to protect children and don't amount to an unwarranted hardship, as some would claim, because Census data shows more than 90 percent of land in Texas is outside incorporated cities.
"Cities are dense urban areas where it makes sense to regulate where sex offenders live," Sandlin said.