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Pocket parks aren't made for children: they're designed for sex offenders

11:03 PM, Apr 25, 2013   |    comments
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  • Two tiny pieces of playground equipment are enough to kick in restrictive sex offender setbacks.
  • This map, created as part of a years-old lawsuit challenging Jacksonville's residency restrictions, shows how much of the city's available housing is off limits to registered sex offenders. The case was referred to a 3-judge panel of Circuit Judges from the Fourth Judicial Circuit, but it has largely dormant since April 2011.
  • Residency restrictions has created a "clustering" of sex offenders. Within a one-mile radius of John Love Elementary, there are more than 108 offenders and predators.
  • Because it constitutes a "playground," this dinosaur hobby horse has forced sex offenders to move from a vacant lot where they once congregated.

Twenty-four years ago, Donavon Lace was charged with   committing a lewd and lascivious act on a 16-year-old girl. As he describes it, "It was a consensual sex act at a party."

He was 18 at the time, and the judge in the case withheld adjudication; Lace was given a sentence of probation. But after a marriage, and some time living in Colorado, he was contacted by Florida corrections officials.

"Then 2006 comes and they tell me I need to register," he recalls. "'What are you talking about?'"

Since then, Lace -- not his real name-- has been a registered sex offender. And the impact has been profound.

"So now I'm ostracized from my neighborhood."

Not just his own. In the state of Florida, sex offenders are required to live at least 1,000 feet from schools and day cares. Cities like Jacksonville and Miami required a more restrictive 2,500 feet.

"They drive these people out with things called pocket parks."

So-called Pocket Parks are the latest tool used to keep sex offenders at bay.

"It could be one swing," said Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the of the ACLU of Florida. "It could be one rocking horse."

That's all that's been built at the Pocket Park in the Shorecrest neighborhood of Miami. Built on tiny lots in a residential neighborhood, the playground was designed to invoke setbacks that limit the footprint where sex offenders can find housing.

"You get clusters of sex offenders," said Kayanan, "and that causes the public outcry."

That's exactly what happened in one Jacksonville neighborhood. In October, First Coast News' Heather Crawford profiled the Fairfield area north of downtown, where clustering has become a serious issue.

In just a 1-mile radius around John Love Elementary, there are more than 108 registered sex offenders and predators.

Putting in a pocket park would not affect sex offenders who already live in an area. But it would prevent new offenders from moving in. But that can create a whole new set of problems.

"When you make it impossible for anyone -- sex offender, sexual predator -- to have a stable residence, to have regular monitoring, they tend to go underground. They tend to abscond, they tend to re-offend."

The numbers may attest to that. There are currently 83 homeless sex offenders in Duval County and 1,200 in the state of Florida.

"You can't track a transient resident," Lace said. "That's the meaning of transient. 'Where do you live?' 'Nowhere!'"

For years, Miami was known for a massive homeless encampment under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, which became one of the few places sex offenders could legally live.

After that encampment was disbanded in 2010, many relocated to a vacant street corner lot in Shorecrest.

"At night it would become tent village," said Ken Jett, president of the Shorecrest Homeowners Association.

"Some had nothing but sleeping bags, some had tents. Sometimes even just a chair." said Mina Kuhn, Shorecrest HOA member.

Since the pocket park went in nearby, sex offenders no longer sleep at the corner. But they have not left Shorecrest. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement map shows the offenders are still living here, and still listed as local transients.

For Shorecrest residents, the pocket park served its purpose. But it didn't solve the problem. 

"It's displacing the issue," said Jett.

While Lace hates what the registry has done to him, he supports them -- and residency setbacks -- in the case of child sexual predators. He was himself a victim of childhood rape.

"I have no love for anyone would ever harm a child," he said. "I don't want anyone to experience what I experienced."

But he insists the sexual assault was nowhere near as traumatic as his years on the registry.

"I am not scarred for life from that incident. What scarred me for life is the Adam Walsh act. If you want to talk about scars."

First Coast News

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