MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In Miami, it's an odd sight. Along the Causeway, in the middle of the turquoise blue Biscayne Bay, in view of downtown Miami, is an encampment of sex offenders. It's a colony created by state corrections officials in response to local laws restricting where sex offenders can live. More than 80 people make their home there now. And the number is growing as local and state officials trade charges about who's to blame.
From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: It started more than two years ago, a few tents pitched under a bridge on Miami's Julia Tuttle Causeway. Today, it's a well-established shantytown.
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ALLEN: There are half a dozen wooden shacks, some with cooking and toilet facilities. It's a village of tents, campers and cars, also a dock with a few small rowboats. Shared generators provide power for a CD player, also to recharge cell phones and electronic monitoring units required for sex offenders on supervised release. Homer Barclay came to live here a year-and-a-half ago. He was convicted of attempted sexual battery in 1992. Last year, after a parole violation, he says probation officers gave him just one option.
Mr. HOMER BARCLAY: They told me that I had to live up under the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
ALLEN: They told you that, that you had to live under…
Mr. BARCLAY: Of course they did.
ALLEN: Barclay shows me the driver's license issued to him at the time of his release. His address is listed as Julia Tuttle Causeway. Like many of the sex offenders on supervised release, Barclay is required to be here between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. During the day, many of the felons leave for jobs or to visit their families. On this day, when I found him, Barclay was fishing.
Mr. BARCLAY: Right now I'm hungry, you know what I'm saying? I need a bath. I'm fishing, as you see, to try to survive. We just want to do what they want us to do. We want our life back. That's all we want.
ALLEN: Until recently, the sex offender colony was mostly out of sight to motorists passing overhead on the interstate that links Miami Beach to the mainland. But the growing population has now spread out from under the bridge to the grassy areas alongside the road. That's gotten the attention of Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.
Mr. MARK SARNOFF (City Commissioner, Miami): This is probably not the message the city of Miami, and I suspect certainly Miami Beach, does not want to send to its visitors that, you know, welcome to our neighborhood, we put all of our predators right out here.
ALLEN: A few years ago, Miami was one of several communities, which along with the county, adopted ordinances banning sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, bus stops and anywhere that children congregate. State corrections officials say that made it impossible for many sex offenders to go back home. Corrections officials settled on the state-owned land under the bridge as their only recourse.
In a letter to the city of Miami last month, a state lawyer said that the corrections department is just following local laws and that the growing colony of sex offenders is, in effect, Miami's problem. That letter infuriated Miami Commissioner Sarnoff.
Mr. SARNOFF: Well, it's not our problem. The problem is the state's problem. The state is the one that is placing them under the bridge. The state is the one that is issuing them identification cards that actually say: under the Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge.
ALLEN: Sarnoff says he and others want the state to convene a task force to address the problem - so far with no results. Out of frustration, Miami sued the state of Florida, saying it had created a public nuisance that was a threat to health and safety. The city also maintains that the shantytown on the causeway violates the sex offender ordinance because it's within 2,500 feet of an island in Biscayne Bay that's designated as a city park.
Ms. GRETL PLESSINGER (Department of Corrections, Florida): That's not the department's reading of the law.
ALLEN: Gretl Plessinger is with Florida's Department of Corrections. She says the department shares the concerns about the growing population under the bridge. But she doesn't believe the nearby island presents them with a legal problem requiring them to relocate the sex offenders.
Ms. PLESSINGER: It's my belief that that is just a barrier island that occasionally boaters will go to to picnic. There's no playground equipment. It's not someplace where we would consider children to be congregating.
ALLEN: Recently, the ACLU also entered the melee with a lawsuit that targets Miami-Dade County and its 2,500-foot residency restriction. Maria Kayanan of the ACLU says Miami-Dade's law should be preempted by a state ordinance, which sets a 1,000-foot residency restriction on sex offenders. That would greatly expand the places in Miami where they could live. It would also create a single, statewide standard.
Ms. MARIA KAYANAN (ACLU): There seems to be a growing recognition, not just in South Florida, but throughout the state and across the country, that state legislative schemes are the better way to go rather than a patchwork of local ordinances.
ALLEN: That issue, that there should be a single statewide residency standard for sex offenders, is actually something on which all parties agree. The question is how to get there. With state and local officials at an impasse, the future of the growing colony of sex offenders living under the bridge would now appear to rest with Florida's courts.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.