In 2007, Miami New Times first documented the unintended side effect of Miami-Dade County's strict laws about where convicted sex offenders can live: Namely, that dozens of men were forced by law to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in squalid conditions. The men were eventually moved out amid national outcry, but earlier this year New Times found that little had changed: Now the men were stuck camping near train tracks in Hialeah.
This week, the national ACLU has gotten involved. The group is suing Miami-Dade County in federal court, demanding a permanent injunction against the law.
At the root of the problem are Miami's sex offender laws, which grew out of outrage from the 2005 murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lundsford by a convicted offender in Homosassa, Florida. Miami Beach started the movement by banning sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school or park -- a move that essentially banned all sex offenders from the mile-wide island.
Fearing an influx of new sex offender residents, Miami-Dade quickly followed suit with a similar law. By 2007, sex offenders released from prison in Dade County soon found that there was literally no place they were allowed to live.
As former New Times staffer Isaiah Thomson showed, offenders were shuttled directly from prison to local bridges -- first to a highway overpass near the Kristi House and then, after an outcry, to the Julia Tuttle Bridge, where they remained for months.
For years afterward, they were shifted from location to location by changing laws; one commissioner began designating tiny patches of grass in his district as "parks" just to force the camp away. And last year, New Times documented that the colony had been pushed to the boundaries of Dade County, to a parking lot in Hialeah without running water or electricity.
"Not even dogs live like this," one man told us.
As some advocates argued, the laws likely had the opposite effect from keeping residents safe; instead, the offenders had no chance at reform and finding a legal place in society.
That's exactly what the ACLU argues in its new suit.
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"The squalid conditions make it extremely difficult for former offenders to find and maintain stable employment and regular psychological treatment, which are the only two factors proven to reduce the likelihood of reoffending," the organization says in a statement. "Decades of research show that housing restrictions like Miami-Dade's have no impact on reoffending and are more likely to increase it."
One man still backs the rules, though: Ron Book, the superlobbyist and Homeless Trust chairman who helped craft the laws. He tells the Miami Herald this morning that the suit is without merit.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has said they're entitled to live places that don't endanger the health, safety and welfare of law-abiding citizens of the U.S. But they're entitled to take their $350 to the courthouse," Book tells the Herald, referring to the ACLU's court filing fees. "I don't support those with sexual deviant behavior living in close proximity to where kids are."