When California voters approved Jessica's Law in 2006, the goal was simple: to keep sex offenders away from children.
The sweeping measure prohibited all sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks where children gather, regardless of whether their crimes involved children.
The law left large swaths of neighborhoods off-limits to these parolees, creating consequences that not everyone expected. Sex offenders were pushed into industrial areas, homeless camps and other remote locations. In Harbor Gateway, officials even built pocket parks to help make larger portions of the community fall under the Jessica's Law restrictions.
But on Thursday, California officials announced a significant softening of the law, saying they will no longer impose the blanket restrictions voters approved.
High-risk sex offenders and those whose crimes involved children under age 14 are prohibited from living with half a mile of schools, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said. But in other cases, officials will assess each parolee based on factors relating to the offender's individual circumstances.
This means that sex offenders whose victims were adults could be allowed to live in areas once off-limits by Jessica's Law. State officials said reducing the number of parolees affected by the residency restrictions would allow parole agents more time to focus on higher-risk offenders.
"Jessica's Law was trying to protect the children," said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the corrections department. "Parole agents will now be empowered to look at the person's history and determine whether or not there is a possibility that they would at some point commit a sex crime against a child."
The move comes after the California Supreme Court on March 2 unanimously decided that the blanket restrictions violated the constitutional rights of parolees in San Diego County. Those offenders had argued that the limitations made it impossible for them to find a place to live.
The justices concurred. Justice Marvin R. Baxter, who is now retired, wrote for the court that the rules "increased the incidence of homelessness among them, and hindered their access to medical treatment, drug and alcohol dependency services, psychological counseling and other rehabilitative social services available to all parolees."
The state's decision sparked outrage from some Jessica's Law advocates.
Board of Equalization Vice Chair George Runner, who authored Jessica's Law as a state senator, said the corrections department was going "far beyond" the high court decision. The court ruling, he said, covered only San Diego County, yet the department extended it to the entire state.
"The Supreme Court had the opportunity to go ahead and apply it everywhere," Runner said. "Why it is that corrections would take a broader interpretation of the Supreme Court than the Supreme Court did is puzzling."
Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) was also critical of the move. "This is outrageous," he said in a statement. "This unilateral decision by one politician not only goes against voters' wishes, it puts children in harm's way."
Corrections officials said they acted after the state attorney general's office advised them that the blanket restrictions of Jessica's Law would be found unconstitutional in every county.
"While the court's ruling is specific to San Diego County, its rationale is not," Patino said.
One question raised by the Jessica's Law restrictions is whether they caused more sex offenders to become homeless. Officials have warned for years that homeless parolees are more difficult to supervise and pose a greater risk to public safety.
A task force convened by the corrections department wrote in a 2010 report that Jessica's Law had resulted in a dramatic increase of the number of homeless sex offenders living in California — up 24 times in just three years of enforcement. The lack of stable housing, employment and social support, experts said, increased a parolee's chance of committing new crimes.
As of Feb. 28, about a quarter of the 6,000 sex offender parolees living in California were homeless. Patino said the agency's new policy was designed to "reduce their risk of re-offending and increase community safety."
The corrections department sent parole agents a memo Wednesday notifying them of the change, which became "effective immediately." The agency said residency restrictions could be implemented, but it would depend on whether there was a "nexus" to the parolee's "offense, criminal history and/or future criminality."
Patino said it will probably take officials about 60 days to review the cases of the 6,000 sex offenders living under Jessica's Law restrictions and determine whether their cases should be modified.
Other parts of Jessica's Law, such as requiring all offenders to wear GPS monitors, will remain in effect.
About 70% of voters approved Jessica's Law when it was passed in 2006. The measure, which had the support of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, expanded to all sex offenders the strict residency requirements that until then were only imposed on offenders whose victims were children.
The measure was modeled after similar laws in other states designed to reduce a sex offender's ability to re-offend. The laws were named after Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was abducted, assaulted and murdered by a convicted sex offender.
Advocates said the law would create "predator-free zones" around schools and parks, and downplayed concerns over housing, saying offenders would still have ample options. But civil rights attorneys argued the provisions of the law made it impossible for many offenders to live in densely population cities.
Attorney Janice Bellucci, who is the president of the group California Reform Sex Offender Laws, has repeatedly sued against what she contends are unlawful residency restrictions. She welcomed Thursday's announcement but cautioned that a case-by-case assessment did not guarantee a parolee's rights would not be violated.
"Quite frankly, we can only hope that they do not abuse that discretion," she said. "If they do abuse that discretion, we could end up back where we started."
Laura Arnold, one of the attorneys who argued the San Diego County case, said the move by the corrections department would help boost public safety. Making parolees "homeless and impossible to monitor doesn't serve the purpose that the residency restriction will serve," she said.
Earl Chenault Jr., 57, is someone who might be affected by the department's move. Chenault is required to register as a sex offender for old convictions for assault with intent to commit a sex offense and annoying or molesting a child under 18, which he says date from the 1980s.
In an interview Thursday, Chenault said he didn't realize that when he recently pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and was sent to prison, he would have no place to go upon his release in 2013. Chenault, who has liver cancer, lived on the streets for about five months because his father's home in Santa Maria was off-limits to him due to Jessica's Law.
Although a judge has temporarily allowed him to stay at his father's house since last April, Chenault said he was relieved to hear of the new rules.
"I really appreciate that. I have nowhere to go," he said. "I would've died out there on the street."