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Monday, May 19, 1997

State doesn't have to notify residents of sex offenders next door

HOUSTON (AP) - State laws requiring public notification when a sex offender is released into a community isn't as airtight as the public might think, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The law covers only those sex offenders convicted after September 1995. Many being released from prison now committed their crimes earlier, the Chronicle reported Sunday.

And odds are better that a convicted sex offender lives in a halfway house or group home in Harris County, where there are fewer restrictions about what convicts can move into the county,

State law requires parolees to be returned to their home counties when released from prison. There are exceptions in cases where special services, such as those provided by halfway houses, are unavailable in the home county.

A 1996 state parole division analysis showed that 285 of 728 sex offenders on parole or mandatory supervision in Harris County had committed their crimes in another county.

That's upsetting to Renaldo Hernandez, 21, whose 3-year-old son often plays within 100 feet of a Houston house that 10 convicted sex offenders call home.

"As soon as they planned to move in, somebody should have told us," Hernandez said.

The home near Hernandez' is one of several private rental properties in the county that house groups of convicts released early from prison on parole or mandatory supervision.

In social work parlance, these homes are often called "three-quarter houses" because they are the first stop after a convict makes it out of a halfway house.

Those, especially sex offenders, move to such houses because they either lack a family home or face landlords who are reluctant to rent to them.

"A lot are trying to get their feet back on the ground and be tax-paying citizens," said Robert Lambert, 45, a Fort Worth mean released early from a prison sentence for a drug conviction. Now, he is the live-in manager of the group home near the Hernandez family.

"They've served their time and have to come out of prison sometime and live somewhere."

It is unclear how many such homes there are in Houston.

"These homes pop up in communities without any licensing, public notification or prior warning to neighbors," said Andy Kahan, director of the Houston Mayor's Crime Victims Office.

"It's like moving an entire cell block from prison to a neighborhood without anyone taking the responsibility to notify the neighborhood," he said.

Tarrant County had a higher percentage of out-of-county sex offenders - 141 of 253 - but some dated to before the county tightened its acceptance rules.

Eighty-nine of 360 sex offenders released to Dallas County, while 35 of 138 in Bexar County committed their offenses elsewhere.

Most of Texas' 254 counties lack halfway houses. The Rio Grande Valley, most of East and West Texas and even some large metropolitan areas, including San Antonio and Corpus Christi, have no such facilities.

Some of the 10 counties that have halfway houses restrict who they will accept.

For example, Dallas County opened a halfway house in December under a lease that allows the facility to accept only convicts from Dallas County.

Because parole officials try to send those released early, especially sex offenders, to supervised facilities that have counseling and treatment programs, these offenders often are released to Harris County.

Meanwhile, the 310-bed Reid Community Correctional Facility in Harris County - the largest halfway house in the state - accepts anyone released from a Texas prison.

Once placed in the halfway house, authorities say most sex offenders end up finding jobs and making Harris County their home.

"It wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if Tarrant County and Dallas County will only take their own, where else do they go?" one unidentified halfway-house expert told the Chronicle. "Harris County is one of the few places for them to go." Send a Letter to the Editor about This Story | Start or Join A Discussion about This Story
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