By James Poulos.
California’s strict limits on housing for sex offenders have been effectively wiped out, thanks to the consequences of a shift in regulations brought on by the courts.
“Three-quarters of California’s paroled sex offenders previously banned from living near parks, schools and other places where children congregate now face no housing restrictions after the state changed its policy in response to a court ruling that said the prohibition only applies to child molesters,” the Associated Press reported, citing statewide data compiled at its request.
“The rate is far higher than officials initially predicted. The state expected half of the 5,900 parolees would have restrictions on where they can live or sleep lifted when the corrections department changed its policy following the March ruling. Instead, data shows that 76 percent of offenders no longer are subject to the voter-approved restrictions.”
The pronounced shift underscored the structural dilemmas policymakers have faced in dealing with the state’s significant population of sex offenders. “In some more urban jurisdictions offenders can’t legally live anywhere so they’re forced to live on the streets in some cases,” the Eureka Times-Standard noted — a domino effect that has led to fears of greater crime and recidivism.
But the new policy has already been accused of dramatically overcompensating. “[E]ven some whose offense involved a child no longer face the 2,000-foot residency restriction, officials disclosed in explaining the higher number,” the Times-Standard added. “That’s because the department’s new policy requires a direct connection between where a parolee lives and the offender’s crime or potential to re-offend. Only rarely is the assailant a stranger to the victim, the type of offender whose behavior might be affected by where he lives.”
Although elected officials have shown an understandable unwillingness to appear soft on sex crime, attention has turned in recent years to the ways in which the state’s array of punishments can expose sex offenders to threats and risks well in excess of the law itself. Last month, convicted Vallejo predator Fraisure Earl Smith was ejected from a Motel 6 after having been released from a psychiatric hospital. Homeless, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Smith wound up “living out of a vehicle somewhere in the Vallejo area under the watchful eye of security officers for Liberty Health Care Corp., the contractor that the state hired to handle his release.”
Sex offenders have also faced sharp difficulties in prison. This month, a report issued by the state Inspector General revealed systematic abuses against inmates, with sex offenders singled out for extralegal harm. Investigators found “rising violence statewide in special housing units designed to protect vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, gang dropouts and prisoners with physical disabilities,” ABC Newsreported. “Guards can now use an electronic state database to easily see which inmates have an ‘R’ coding that designates a sex offender. Some spread that information, knowing sex offenders are often marked for retribution, the inspector general found.”
Other recent anecdotes, however, have told a different story. “A sex offender with a stolen boarding pass got through airport security in Salt Lake City and checked in at a gate for a flight to California before he was caught” this November, as the Associated Press observed. A recent three-day sweep of Sacramento’s American River Parkway found many transients there to have run afoul of the law. “Sixteen people were arrested for outstanding warrants,” KCRA recalled; “another 12 were not properly registered as sex offenders.”
The sheer number of offenders has grown large enough to pose a bureaucratic problem, making it harder to determine which are more likely to re-offend than others. Sizing up that challenge, the state board overseeing California’s sex offender registry rolls recommended to state legislators last year “that only high-risk offenders, such as kidnappers and sexually violent predators, should be required to register for life,” as the San Francisco Chronicle noted. “Others could be removed from the registry 10 to 20 years after the offense.”