Palm Beach County sex offenders: County task force hopes to ease limits on housing sex offenders

They live in cars or sleep on the streets. Most homeless shelters and halfway houses won't take them.

South Florida cities have pushed hundreds of sex offenders underground with strict housing laws in recent years, critics say, but a new Palm Beach County task force is taking steps to reverse that trend.

It plans to draft an ordinance this summer that would make it easier for sex offenders in the county to find a place to live. One idea: Reduce the distance the county now requires offenders to live from schools, parks, day care centers and school bus stops from 2,500 feet to 1,000 feet.

If county commissioners choose to pass such an ordinance, it would be the boldest change to sex offender laws in South Florida since local cities began passing stricter laws around 2005.

"I feel that it's the right thing to do," said Highland Beach Mayor Bernard Featherman, a member of the Criminal Justice Commission's sex offender reentry task force. "I've learned that nothing you make a decision about is popular."

Two county commissioners, Steven Abrams and Priscilla Taylor, said they would consider easing limits.

"I'm willing to take a look at it and weigh the pros and cons," Taylor said. "We want to make sure every individual has a place to stay. We just need to be very cautious because it affects children and adults as well."

Commissioner Paulette Burdick said she would not support the change, citing "reservations" about shrinking the buffer zone to 1,000 feet.

"It's not far enough," Burdick said. "I know it's a difficult issue, but the safety and security of our children is paramount.

State law requires people convicted of certain sex crimes to live at least 1,000 feet from places where children congregate and prohibits them from loitering within 300 feet of those areas.

Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and many local municipalities enacted even more stringent residency laws after Jessica Lunsford, 9, was raped and murdered in 2005 by John Couey, a repeat sex offender who lived in her Central Florida neighborhood.

Palm Beach and Broward counties require their 2,178 registered sex offenders to live at least 2,500 feet away from schools and child zones. About 200 are listed as "transient," with no address.

That transient population is growing, making them harder to track, said Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Mark Jolly, who oversees the Sexual Predator/Offender Tracking Unit. Cities have also added to the confusion by passing their own offender laws, he said.

"We need consistency," said Jolly, whose team keeps tabs on where sex offenders live. "If an offender calls me and wants to know where they can live, it's nearly impossible to tell them. [Laws] change from one street to the other."

Sex offenders in Palm Beach County have been pushed to the fringes, he said. One of the few places that accepts them is a halfway house surrounded by sugar cane fields near Pahokee. Miracle Village is home to 86 offenders who live in the duplexes and participate in faith-based programs and job training.

In Broward County, offenders clustered in Broadview Park until the county passed its current ordinance that created a 2,500-foot buffer around schools, parks and playgrounds. Residents of the unincorporated area had complained about large numbers of sex offenders moving to their neighborhood because of the residency restrictions in surrounding cities.

Palm Beach County's sex offender task force, made up of community officials and social service agencies, wants to return to a law more similar to the state's. The ordinance would only cover neighborhoods outside city limits, so the task force needs to drum up support from local municipalities to adopt a standard law.

"Obviously, the politics of this issue are serious. It's a scary population for a lot of people," said Mike Rodriguez, executive director of the Criminal Justice Commission. "I wouldn't be surprised if all of this were to go nowhere."