By Barbara Goldberg
(Reuters) - Nearly two decades have passed since Josh Gravens, then 12 years old, was playing with his 8-year-old sister and touched her body in an inappropriate way, landing himself on a sex offender registry.
His sister forgave him long ago but Gravens still worries that the incident could force him out of his Dallas home.
Concerns about sexual predators have led communities in 30 U.S. states to adopt laws limiting where registered sex offenders can live, typically keeping them away from schools, parks or other places where children congregate.
Gravens, now 29 and an advocate for prisoner rights, spends a lot of his time courting Dallas City Council members, including volunteering on election campaigns, in hopes of preventing them from imposing rigid limits on where sex offenders may live.
"It would be absolutely disruptive and possibly push me out of a town where I finally feel like I’ve found my way," said Gravens, who lives near a park. "Dallas is the first city I felt I had a chance. A lot of places I was terrified of my own name."
Increasingly tough laws adopted in the United States over the past 20 years have had the unintended consequence of forcing many of the nation's 800,000 registered sex offenders into homelessness. That in turn makes them harder to track, according to law enforcement, and strips them of the stable homes advocates say are key to getting a job and rehabilitation.
Recently there has been something of a backlash against such residency restrictions - with courts striking them down in 2015 in New York, Massachusetts and California. Last week in Rhode Island, a federal judge granted a restraining order that allowed high-risk offenders who live within 1,000 feet (305 meters) of a school to stay in their homes at least until January. This week in Texas, civil rights advocates demanded that 46 small communities immediately rescind their residency restrictions or be sued.
At the same time, Wisconsin legislators are considering a bill for a statewide standard, which would upend local ordinances.
In Dallas, where Gravens lives, the City Council set aside a proposal for residency restrictions due to lack of evidence that bans work.
Gravens, part of the effort to get city leaders to mothball the plan, spoke out about how his mother's call to a Christian center seeking advice about her son's adolescent curiosity had triggered a police report that landed him in jail the next day.
His sister helped get his name off the public registry but Gravens, now a divorced father of three, remains on a separate list available to law enforcement until he turns 31.
A Department of Justice report in July on dealing with sex offenders found "the evidence is fairly clear that residence restrictions are not effective" and may even expose communities to greater danger.
Residency bans have arisen from public sex offender registries, which require people who have served their sentence to continually update for decades - often for life - their photograph, physical description, address and place of employment. Failure to do so means felony arrest.
Today, thousands of registrants are people like Gravens who committed offenses as minors, said Elizabeth Letourneau, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Supporters say residency restrictions are meant to thwart adult strangers lurking nearby to snatch child victims.
"I don't want those people living near children," said Ron Book, a Florida lobbyist and nationally recognized proponent of residency restrictions.
"If you put young children in the faces of people prone to commit sexually deviant behaviors on children, there is a greater chance than not that they'll act out. They’ll do their thing," Book said.
But more than 90 percent of offenders who target children are known to the children and their families, and more than 30 percent of those offenders are minors themselves, said Jill Levenson, a professor at Barry University in Florida who has studied offenders.
In some municipalities, enormous buffer zones surrounding places where children gather have effectively placed every possible residence off-limits to sex offenders, often regardless of whether the victim of their offense was a child.
HOMELESS IN CALIFORNIA
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a 2010 report that after a 2,000 foot (610-meter) barrier was enacted statewide in 2006, homelessness among paroled sex offenders "increased by approximately 24 times. Presently, more than one-third of all sex offenders on parole have become transient."
Parole officers said it was harder to supervise homeless parolees, and the department announced in March it would no longer impose the restrictions.
"There are some hopeful signs that evidence may triumph over emotion and hysteria," said Emily Horowitz, a professor at St. Francis College in New York who has studied the restrictions.
Despite signs of changing attitudes, new residency bans continue to be approved by local politicians across the U.S. In Maine alone, the towns of Old Orchard Beach, Biddeford and Saco all passed 750-foot (230-meter) residency restrictions in recent months.
Elsewhere, municipalities expanded the size of existing restrictions, such as Flower Mound, Texas, broadening a 1,500-foot (460-meter) barrier to 2,000 feet (610 feet) and Providence, Rhode Island, tripling a 300-foot (90-meter) barrier to 1,000 feet (305 meters).
But Gravens said he had hope that public opinion was changing.
"I do believe the tide is turning," Gravens said. "It has very much to do with the fact that people are coming out of the darkness, speaking about their experiences and saying 'We're just trying to get on with our lives. Can we?'"
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Frances Kerry)