by Kevin Crowe and Denise Zapata | inewsource
Jessica’s Law, which was approved by California voters in November 2006, toughened sanctions against sex offenders and bars them from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. In San Diego County, 1,266 of 1,731 offenders whose addresses are made public by the state live in those restricted zones, according to an analysis by inewsource, a nonprofit investigative journalism unit based at San Diego State University.
That finding surprises virtually no one in law enforcement. They say the law is vague and has holes, making it nearly impossible to enforce.
For example, the law doesn’t specify whether residence restrictions apply to all convicted sex offenders or only to those who were convicted or paroled after it passed. There are no penalties for violating the restrictions.
“The initiative itself was so badly written, no one knows how retroactive it is,” said Tom Tobin, a clinical psychologist and member of the state Sex Offender Management Board, an advisory group that includes law enforcement and other professionals who deal with sex crimes.
Four registered sex offenders, two of whom live in San Diego County, have challenged the residency restrictions, and their case is before the California Supreme Court.
The four men were paroled after Jessica’s Law passed, but their most recent crimes were not sex offenses. Parole officers told them they had to move from restricted areas near schools or parks or be sent back to prison.
Ernest Galvan, who represents the men, said the law is retroactive punishment. Laws that restrict a person’s rights must be based on a “compelling state interest,” he said.
Attorneys for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation say voters intended to create “predator-free zones,” so the law applies to all registered sex offenders.
The court’s ruling is expected in February.
Dozens of municipalities across the state that have approved their own ordinances are awaiting the court’s decision before moving to enforce them. In San Diego County, six cities have enacted ordinances that restrict where convicted offenders can live or loiter: San Diego, Chula Vista, National City, La Mesa, Santee and San Marcos. The county of San Diego and the Padre Dam Municipal Water District — which oversees Santee Lakes — also have ordinances. Each makes a violation a misdemeanor.
Nearly all of those cities increased the number of restricted areas, barring convicted offenders from living or loitering near playgrounds, arcades, amusement parks and other places where children congregate. The Chula Vista City Council, however, eased the state restrictions, barring offenders convicted of crimes against children from living within 500 feet of a city park or a school that serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Leonard Miranda, a Chula Vista Police Department captain who helped craft the city ordinance, said a 2,000-foot restriction leaves only small pockets in the city where offenders could live.
“It was impractical,” he said.
More than 90 percent of convicted sex offenders listing addresses in Chula Vista are in violation of the state residence restriction, while none violate the municipal ordinance.
Glenn Isaaks, an agent in the department’s sex-offender-registration unit, said few police or sheriff’s departments have the resources to enforce a 2,000-foot restriction.
“We’re budget-strapped as it is,” he said. “It would be a burden to have to do that.”
While the legality of Jessica’s Law is debated, law enforcement experts are examining the larger question of whether residence restrictions reduce crime. About 7 percent of sex offenses against children are committed by someone already convicted of a child-sex crime, according to a 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Justice That means that in most cases, child-sex offenses are being committed by someone who isn’t on a registry.
And while residence restrictions are aimed at keeping strangers away from children, strangers commit a small percentage of child-sex offenses. The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office doesn’t track how many child molestations are committed by strangers, but the Justice Department study found that 93 percent of offenders are related to or know their victims.
“Often, we’re horrified when we hear about children snatched off the street,” said Phyllis Shess, director of sex-offender management in the District Attorney’s Office. “That is statistically very rare.”
In one aspect, Jessica’s Law has increased concerns about public safety. Since it took effect, more registered sex offenders have identified themselves as transient and are harder to track.
Among California parolees — the only population of sex offenders for whom the residence restrictions have been consistently enforced — the number listed as transient has gone from 88 in November 2006 to 1,056 in June 2008, an increase of 1,100 percent, according to a Sex Offender Management Board report in December 2008.
Tobin said sex offenders in an unstable environment, such as homelessness, are more likely to commit another crime.
“Why would we want to, with no apparent good reason, increase the risk of re-offending?” he asked. “The reality is we’re pushing people to the brink.”
In January, the Sex Offender Management Board issued recommendations, including one to “rethink residency restrictions.” It stated, “The vast majority of evidence and research conducted to date does not demonstrate a connection between where an offender lives and recidivism.”
Some officials in other states agree. Iowa legislators this year revised the state law banning convicted sex offenders from living near schools or day-care centers after law enforcement officials complained that it was difficult to enforce and increased the number of transient offenders. Now, only violent sex offenders can’t live in those areas.
State Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, who sponsored California’s initiative, said the law improves monitoring because it requires all registered felony sex offenders to wear a GPS device. However, only sex offenders on parole — about 15 percent of registered offenders statewide — are wearing the devices.
Local law enforcement agencies are supposed to take over GPS monitoring after sex offenders are off parole, but none has done that, said Lindon Lewis, a San Diego County GPS unit supervisor with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Local officials are waiting for the state Supreme Court ruling, and they say they need funding before they can start monitoring, he said.
The law requires sex offenders to pay for GPS monitoring, but if they can’t, the state pays. For the 6,782 sex offenders on parole statewide, it cost $10.2 million to activate the devices, plus $14.9 million a year for monitoring.
Runner said the law shouldn’t be scaled back because of cost.
“How much does it cost when a child gets raped?” he asked.
Most officials who handle aspects of sex offenses say changing the law is a politically charged proposition.
“Who is going to stand up and say something that can be construed as, ‘Let’s go easier on sex offenders’?” Tobin said.
It’s not clear what may happen after the court issues its ruling, but if law enforcement agencies begin enforcing residence restrictions, that could launch another logistical challenge: where to put convicted sex offenders, especially in urban areas. A San Diego County District Attorney’s Office study in 2007 concluded that residence restrictions eliminated 72 percent of the residential parcels in the county.
inewsource found that in San Diego, where more than one-third of the county’s convicted sex offenders list addresses, 85 percent are in violation of the state’s residence restrictions. The city ordinance adds further restrictions, barring registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of day-care centers, arcades, playgrounds, libraries and attractions that include the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld. It also bars them from loitering within 300 feet of those places.
The city hasn’t enforced its ordinance, passed in 2008, because of the pending case. Officials in the City Attorney’s Office also wouldn’t discuss enforcement plans because the case isn’t resolved, said city attorney spokeswoman Gina Coburn.
Moving the registered sex offenders who violate residence restrictions isn’t a simple solution. Finding housing for convicted sex offenders still on parole is difficult, state corrections officials say.
Residence restrictions have a “kind of intuitive appeal,” said Tobin, of the Sex Offender Management Board. “But if ‘not in my backyard,’ then where?”
BEHIND THE STORY
For its analysis, inewsource downloaded information on registered sex offenders in San Diego County from an online registry maintained by the California Attorney General’s Office. The registry displays full addresses only for the most serious offenders. An inewsource analysis of that information formed the basis of this report. While the registry is subject to change daily, inewsource used the information on the Web site Nov. 17. The site is available at meganslaw.ca.gov/
Using geographic data provided by the San Diego city and county geographic information system, or SanGIS, and the San Diego Association of Governments, inewsource mapped the addresses of registered offenders and drew 2,000-foot buffer zones around parks and schools to determine how many are violating the state’s residence restrictions.