Megan's Law in Vancouver

A Spatial Analysis of Sex Offender Restrictions in Residential Areas
Background Information
Data and Methodology
Further Research


Background Information


Megan’s Law in the United States has two primary components: the registration of sex offenders convicted of sex crimes against children with local law enforcement agencies, and the community notification of the presence of a child sex offender in neighborhoods (1). The law requires convicted child sex offenders to register any change of address with their local sheriff’s office at least twenty days prior to their move-in date. Not only is written notice of the impending arrival of an offender provided to local law enforcement, it is also provided to pertinent members of the community: occupants of the residences adjacent to the offender’s new place of residence, the principals of all local schools and child day care centers, and the superintendent of the school district in which the offender newly resides (1). This requirement applies to offenders from 10 years to life after their release date from prison, depending on the severity of their sex crime(s).

Since the databases of sex offender registration are considered public information, forty states currently also maintain sex offender registries which can be accessed electronically. These websites include listings of sex offenders’ residential addresses, their photographs and detailed descriptions of their appearance, nature of their past offences and incarceration date(s), as well as interactive maps indicating places of residence of all registered sex offenders currently residing in that state (2). The Jessica Lunsford Act is a piece of legislation similar to Megan’s Law which requires convicted sex offenders to wear Global Positioning Systems (GPS) devices on their ankles for five years following their release from prison, to better enable law enforcement personnel to track their whereabouts (3). Introduced at the federal level in 2005, the act was never enacted by Congress and thus is currently obsolete.

Many versions of Megan’s Law have been amended by local and state governments to include legislation prohibiting sex offenders from living within a certain distance of sites deemed to be child congregation locations (such as schools and parks, but also day care centers, playgrounds, school bus stops, libraries, and community centres [4]). To date, over twenty states and hundreds of communities have passed legislation proscribing where convicted sex offenders may or may not take up residence, typically buffer zones of one thousand feet around schools or other venues (although they range from 500 to 2,500 feet; [2], [5]). In California, Proposition 83 includes an amendment establishing a two thousand foot “no-live” zone around all schools and parks in the state (6; see Figure1). Although it passed in the legislature, enforcement of the law was blocked soon after its enactment based on fears that the buffers would be unenforceable and push sex offenders from urban to rural areas (7). In Ohio, amendments to Megan’s Law include a one thousand foot “no-live” zone buffer around any school-related properties (including school fields, buildings, and facilities [2]).

While debate over the enforcement of different versions of Megan’s Law continues to be heated, and the effectiveness of the “no-live” zones is controversial, we decided to examine the restricted residency areas as applied to Vancouver. Although Canada has yet to enact any such legislation (beyond a confidential central registry of all convicted sex offenders), we were interested in examining how such geographic restrictions might hypothetically apply in Vancouver. Many studies have been conducted in the United States on the “no-live” zones proposed by much of sex offender legislature, showing that such restrictions often create exclusion areas making it difficult (if not impossible) for sex offenders to find housing (8). Due to the overlapping nature of these exclusionary zones, in many cities the only acceptable sites for sex offender residency is in high-crime neighborhoods or commercial zones. Even when residential areas are available, sex offenders just released from prison may not be able to find affordable housing in those neighborhoods (8). The studies also found that with the maximum 2500-foot exclusion zone, all of the cities’ centres analyzed would be off-limits for sex offender residency.

In our project we were interested in investigating the consequences of such residential restrictions, and specifically if similar conditions would result in Vancouver based on different “no-live” zone buffer sizes. Within the legislature based on Megan’s Law the size of these geographic restrictions vary, from 500 to 2500 feet. The spatial organization of different cities, as well as the dispersion of land use types, also affects the resulting conditions. Such use of GIS mapping can inform legislators about sexual offender residency requirements This would  be particularly pertinent for in municipalities contemplating the enactment of residency laws. These mapping analyses can also be useful in determining if affordable housing is available within the approved areas, and could ultimately demonstrate whether a proposed law would be feasible to enforce (8).

Copyright © 2010
Geographical Biogeosciences 479
Rebecca Chaster, Antony Kwok and Michael More