Laws to Track Sex Offenders Encouraging Homelessness

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Upon release from state custody, Ross Wollschlager began an intensive search for a home, one that abided by the restrictions imposed on convicted sex offenders in California -- and, in various versions, by about 30 other states. Obliged by law to return to Ventura County, the convicted rapist was forbidden to sleep within 2,000 feet of a school or a park.

He ended up in a tent on the dry bed of the Ventura River.

Strict new laws aimed at keeping track of sex offenders after they leave prison appear to be having the opposite effect, encouraging homelessness in a population believed more likely to re-offend if cast into the streets without structure or family support, say prosecutors, police, parole officials and experts on managing sex offenders.

The issue is starkest in California, where the number of sex crime parolees registering as transient has jumped more than 800 percent since Proposition 83 was passed in November 2006. The "Jessica's Law" initiative imposed strict residency rules and called for all offenders to wear Global Positioning System bracelets for the rest of their lives.

Named for a 9-year-old Florida girl raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender, the provision passed by a wide margin that reflected the powerful public emotion that experts and law enforcement officials say in this instance trumped sound policy.

"The public definitely was sold a bill of goods on this one," said Detective Diane Webb, supervisor of the Los Angeles Police Department unit that tracks 5,000 sex offenders in Los Angeles County. "Unfortunately, it bodes well for politicians to support it because the public does have this false sense of security that this is somehow protecting them when it's not."

Locating legal housing for offenders has become so difficult in urban California that when parole officers find an apartment building beyond the exclusion zones, they often pile in as many offenders as the landlord will accept. When neighbors notice, the cluster spurs protests that prompt lawmakers to pass even tighter exclusion zones as Proposition 83 allows.

In Long Beach, the City Council this year passed a bill expanding such zones to areas near child-care centers and beaches after residents learned of 19 offenders living in a small apartment building. The provision made it nearly impossible to house a sex crime parolee in the city of 500,000.

Nearby Carson followed suit after parole officers placed 30 offenders in a hotel in a light industrial area. Pomona included areas near railroad stations and bus stops.

"If you want to game the system, you use your redevelopment agency to buy up vacant lots and turn them into 'pocket parks,' " Carson City Attorney William Wynder told a gathering of officials from affected communities in the fall. The idea: Design the equivalent of San Francisco, where the dense geography of schools and parks rendered the entire city an exclusion zone.

"It is almost geo-spatially impossible to house a sex offender in San Francisco," said Suzanne Brown-McBride, who chairs the California Sex Offender Management Board. The board, created by the legislature, this month issued a report lamenting the unintended consequences of Jessica's Law.

"Common sense leads to the conclusion that a community cannot be safer when sex offenders are homeless," the report said.

Similar complications face 31 other states that have passed residency restrictions. Georgia's Supreme Court last year struck down its law on the grounds that the 1,000-foot restriction violated property rights; the succeeding measure also faces a court challenge. Homeless offenders in Miami huddled nightly under a bridge after being kicked off a vacant lot neighboring a center for abused children.

In Iowa, the number of sex offenders whose whereabouts were unknown doubled after passage of residence restrictions.

"I don't think anybody has found any evidence that they contribute to safety," said Corwin Ritchie, head of the Iowa County Attorneys Association. "The main defenders are people who are just basing it on emotion, not good public policy. I think most legislators have figured that out in their hearts."

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports about 100 child abductions nationwide a year. "And every one of those is incredibly tragic; there's just no doubt about it," Corwin said. "But it's a tiny number to justify doing these crazy things. And that's what they are. And these restrictions don't stop those crimes anyway."

Justice Department statistics show that 93 percent of child victims are molested by someone they know.

"There's this mythology that you have to know who this scary man is in the neighborhood who might hurt your child, when the reality is sex offenders are often people we know and love," said Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Florida and a researcher on sex offenders.

The attention paid convicted offenders is also easier to explain emotionally than statistically. Ten percent of sex crimes are committed by someone convicted of a previous sexual offense, and the chances of recidivism vary greatly, statistics show. Clinicians say the odds of an individual re-offending can be predicted with reasonable confidence by assessments that take into account age, offense, history and other variables. In the entire population of sex offenders, clinicians say, about 15 percent bear close watch.

"They need a place to live, obviously. We can't send them to the moon," said Tiffany Tsukuda, 23, a tenant in a large East L.A. apartment complex where 47 registered offenders were living at one time. "The problem is, from the criminal justice perspective, we warehouse. We don't treat.

"I really begin with reintegrating, but we're the opposite. We believe in shaming. You have an 'X' on you forever."

In fact, treatment is available to some. When he left prison, Wollschlager was dubbed a "violent sexual predator" and civilly committed to a state treatment center. Though in California, most such offenders decline to participate in treatment (perhaps because admissions in therapy to previously unknown offenses can be used as evidence in court), he was among a handful who graduated to open society. A judge approved release with initial monitoring by a security guard, who watched his tent from a nearby vehicle. Other restrictions may have been specified.

"Let's say you're a sex offender who regularly met your victims on the Internet," said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health, which has so far released 13 offenders. "You won't be moving out with a computer."

Advocates who generally praise Proposition 83 for increasing penalties see false comfort in its post-release provisions.

Crucially, the ballot measure provided no legal grounds to enforce its provisions on the 75 percent of California's convicted offenders who have completed their sentences, unless they are arrested anew. At the Carson meeting, a senior parole official displayed maps showing scores of convicted offenders living adjacent to schools, despite the nominal assurances of Proposition 83.

"You've got a law that says you can't do it, and it's happening," said Robert Ambroselli, deputy director of adult parole operations. "I have a sex offender who lives in my neighborhood. I'm as upset about it as anybody is."

In reality, the restrictions are enforced only on parolees, because their freedom can be revoked. But GPS tracking of 6,300 parolees will cost $60 million next year, and with the housing contortions, parole officers will have less time for surprise drop-bys and other work.

"We're probably using 60 to 70 percent of our resources managing 10 percent of our population," said Alfred Martinez, a state parole official based in Los Angeles.

The state lawmaker who championed Proposition 83 said he was not bothered by homelessness resulting from the initiative because every transient offender is supposed to be wearing an ankle bracelet.

"We knew the consequence from the very beginning; that's why we included GPS as well as residency requirements," said state Sen. George Runner, a Republican who represents an L.A. exurb. "We don't need to re-debate what the people of California asked for."

Professionals in the field disagree. The California Coalition on Sexual Offending, a professional group grounded in treatment, issued a report in December saying that residency restriction "should be recognized as a well-intentioned failure" and repealed, a move also advocated by New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

"It boils down to that perception of safety, which is as powerful if not more so than actual empirical data," said Todd Rogers, who sees the conundrum from both sides as a captain in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a City Council member in suburban Lakewood. "Jessica's Law is the third rail of state politics."

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