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Sex Offenders in Small Texas Towns Get Lawmakers' Attention

AUSTIN, Texas (NEXSTAR MEDIA) - State lawmakers have filed several bills to add more restrictions on where registered sex offenders can live in Texas.

The seven bills, all filed by Republicans, are practically identical. The legislation would allow small cities, in Texas to set up new “child safety zones.”

It all comes down to population size, the bills focus on cities with fewer than 5,000 people, known as General-law cities.

A 2007 legal opinion issued by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott found, unlike larger cities, general-law cities don't have the power to dictate where registered sex offenders can live.

State Rep. Drew Springer said that discrepancy has made some small towns more attractive to sex offenders.

“You can go to the website and see how many live in these towns,” said Springer. The Muenster Republican said complaints from constituents prompted him to file House Bill 207, one of five similar bills introduced in the Texas House this session.

Springer said small cities in his district have seen a “disproportionate amount” of sex offenders per capita in recent years.

“Moving into small towns they were saying, ‘okay there’s less rules and regulations here, we’re going to move there.’ So that is one of the concerns,” said Springer.

More than a dozen general-law cities are being sued for ignoring the current state law and imposing residency restriction.

Threatened with legal action, about 20 others repealed local rules for registered sex offenders.

“This is for folks that have gotten out of prison, no longer on parole but might still pose a danger,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.

If one of the seven bills is passed this session, small communities could pass local limits to keep registered sex offenders from living up to 1,000 feet away from “child safety zones.”

Advocacy groups for criminal justice reform argue residency restrictions are ineffective and unconstitutional in general-law cities.

In December, the 2nd District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth sided with Abbott’s 2007 opinion in a lawsuit filed against the City of Krum, a general-law city located about 45 miles north of Fort Worth.

The judge said Krum did not have the authority to impose local residency restrictions and sent the case back down to the Denton County 367th District Court.

“These small towns don’t have a lot of resources to defend themselves in court,” Sandlin said. The Texas Municipal League helped defend some of the cities hit with lawsuits, while lobbying legislators to make a change.

Similar bills were filed in the last two legislative sessions but failed to make it through both the House and Senate.

If one of the seven proposals gets through both chambers this year, Governor Abbott, who issued the legal opinion that many of the lawsuits have been built on, could veto the bill. 

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