Sex Offenders Screened Out of Some Neighborhoods

Several U.S. states are making efforts to keep select residential communities free of convicted sex offenders. Some private developers plan to run criminal background checks on potential home buyers.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand, in a few minutes, American Muslim students are asking non-Muslims to fast today as a way to understand Islam. We'll have that story coming up.

CHADWICK: First, now that all 50 states keep public lists of where convicted sex criminals live, real estate developers have come up with a new marketing idea: subdivisions that guarantee no sex offenders as a neighbor. In Texas, Kansas and Georgia, those communities already exist. From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: At the top of a high ridge, just before you head into the Blue Ridge Mountains, a brand new subdivision is taking shape on 54 acres. There's a great view, clean air and the promise of security.

Mr. CHRIS GEIGER(ph) (Developer, Attorney and Co-Owner, Iris Park): I'm surprised it hasn't happened before, really. You know, why can't you do this?

LOHR: Chris Geiger is a developer, attorney and co-owner of Iris Park in Canton, Georgia. It's one of three subdivisions in the country that are banning sex offenders from moving in.

Although there are no homes here yet, the streets are laid out in private cul-de-sacs. The idea began when a friend asked Geiger to draw up covenants for a subdivision to keep out dangerous dogs. He responded with a contract that will keep out what he calls dangerous people.

Mr. GEIGER: The time people come in to submit a contract, they have to pass a background check. So if the background check shows up that they're clean, having not had a past history of sexual offenses, then the contract can be accepted by the homeowner's association and the builder and off they go.

It gives you the comfort that the little old man living around the corner is really just a little old man living around the corner, and not just a dirty old man around the corner.

LOHR: In Lubbock, Texas, 24-year old Clayton Isom was the first to open a sex offender-free subdivision.

Mr. CLAYTON ISOM (Real Estate Developer): We've sold nearly all of our lots before we even started building the roads, which is almost unheard of in this business.

LOHR: The prominent case of Jessica Lunsford - the 9-year-old Florida girl who was abducted, sexually abused and murdered by a sex offender living near her home - combined with Isom's two young nieces moving into Texas led him to develop 600 lots in Lubbock, and another project in Lenexa, Kansas.

Mr. ISOM: We don't tell them that you can go let your kids run down the road and they'll never get, you know, anything bad sexually bad happen to them, but we're trying to provide you a safe neighborhood. We've done everything we can to keep these people from living next to you, but that doesn't take the place of being a good parent and knowing what's going on.

LOHR: The background checks are legal. Sex offenders are not a protected class under the Federal Fair Housing Act. A new sex offender law went into effect this year in Georgia, and is being challenged by the Southern Center for Human Rights. Attorney with the center, Sarah Geraghty, says the subdivision restriction won't keep children safe.

Ms. SARAH GERAGHTY (Attorney, Southern Center for Human Rights): I think it provides a false sense of security. The research is very clear that 80 to 90 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by relatives or acquaintances, people who have prior relationships with the children.

LOHR: Others say this is simply a marketing tactic, partly because the Georgia homes will be priced at about $350,000, something most sex offenders who are on probation or parole can't afford anyway. Shoppers at an open air mall in Atlantic have widely differing opinions on the project. Nas(ph) and Nosonie Kadem(ph) were pushing a stroller with their four-year-old daughter inside.

Mr. NAS KADEM: I kind of like it. I know they're around, and I've seen them on the Web site. that they can be just around the corner and you don't know it. That concerns me.

Ms. NOSONIE KADEM: I think it's wonderful. If they're sex offenders, then they should pay for that crime. You know, I have two girls. I wouldn't want a sex offender anywhere near my girls.

LOHR: It's an issue that has come up at Dosey Bowen's(ph) church. She wonders about people put on the sex offender list as teenagers for what may have been consensual sex.

Ms. DOSEY BOWEN: The down, hardcore pedophile - that's a very sad situation, but they almost should be hospitalized, not let out in society. But I just think there is areas of sex offense that - you can't keep everybody away. You can't protect yourself from everything.

LOHR: The courts are looking into a new Georgia law which prevents sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a bus stop. Some say that would force all sex offenders to move out of the state. Developers say they don't want to rely on the courts or the government for help. They say the answer is for them to develop restrictions that they believe will make neighborhoods safer. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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