Tough new laws preventing pedophiles, rapists and other sex offenders from living near schools, child-care centers and parks have made it hard for some to find housing when they leave prison.
It has become so difficult, state prison officials say, that they want to put them up temporarily in hotels at public expense.
A provision in a state budget bill that could be voted on this week would let prison officials spend public money on hotel rooms or other temporary housing to prevent them from wandering the streets. It's cheaper than keeping sex offenders in prison, where the average annual cost of housing and feeding an inmate is about $26,000.
Some lawmakers learned about the proposal late last week when House leaders rolled out portions of their budget proposal.
"It was just a shock," said Rep. Pat Hurley, an Asheboro Republican.
State prison officials, though, say they are out of options.
It's not just that prisons are full. Prison officials say some sex offenders are finding it so hard to find a place to stay once they are paroled that they eventually give up and serve the remainder of their sentence behind bars. That happened 10 days ago when a sex offender's housing plans fell through -- he was rejected from a homeless shelter -- and no other alternative could be found, Correction Department spokesman Keith Acree said.
The inmate decided to spend the remaining nine months of his sentence in prison, at a cost of about $19,000 to taxpayers. Prison officials say about a half dozen others have chosen the same option in the past 18 months.
"We're certainly not saying these are bad laws," said Mary Lu Rogers, an assistant prisons director. "We're saying it adds to the complexity of finding a place for them to live."
Girl's death a spur
In 2006, lawmakers prohibited sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or child-care center. The law was part of a flurry of legislation in many states after a convicted pedophile murdered a 9-year-old girl in Florida.
Some communities have passed ordinances preventing sex offenders from living near parks, and judges often require sex offenders on parole or probation to avoid living in a home with children.
Those actions, along with improved online registries that show where sex offenders live, have stigmatized them to the point where places such as the home of a relative or a homeless shelter are no longer options, prison officials say.
Acree said he is not anticipating the state will start paying hotel bills for hundreds of released sex offenders if the provision becomes law. But hundreds of sex offenders are released from North Carolina prisons each year.
As of Friday, there were 5,280 inmates in state prisons convicted of offenses that would require them to register as sex offenders. Last year, the system released 1,460 sex offenders. State law defines more than 25 crimes as sex offenses. Many involve children, but some include adult victims.
'Benefit for ... public'
Correction Department officials said they went to the leaders of the budget subcommittee that oversees justice and public safety spending two weeks ago. They are Democrat Reps. Alice Bordsen of Mebane and Jimmy Love of Sanford. Bordsen said she and Love included the provision because it does not add to the budget and it provides officials a better opportunity to monitor sex offenders on parole than releasing them to the streets.
"It's not a benefit to the released offender," Bordsen said. "It's a benefit for the general public."
The one-paragraph provision does not mention hotels. Nor does it specifically mention sex offenders. It simply says the Correction Department may use "funds available" to "secure appropriate temporary housing for offenders on post-release supervision, probation, or parole."
It also says the department may contract with "homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other housing providers to provide temporary housing for offenders who do not have a viable home placement plan and are at risk of being homeless."
If housing can't be found in shelters or halfway houses, prison officials would turn to hotels, particularly those that offer reduced rates for extended stays. Those hotels are less likely to cater to families, Acree said. Sex offenders would be required to notify local sheriffs.
Acree said some homeless shelters have started refusing sex offenders out of fear that donations and public funds would dry up.
Robert Harris, executive director of the Zion Shelter and Kitchen in Washington, said the shelter continues to accept sex offenders whose victims are adults, but not pedophiles. The 12-bed shelter for men changed its policy two weeks ago after a parole official warned that it had a liability problem accepting pedophiles. The shelter is in the basement of a church that has youth programs on the weekends.
Harris said he has never had a problem with anyone released to his shelter from state prison in the shelter's 22-year history.
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