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Jessica's Law may increase crime risks

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The law voters passed to crack down on sex offenders could actually be increasing the danger such offenders pose by driving them into homelessness at a significant rate, members of a state board said Thursday.

In the 15 months since voters approved Jessica's Law, which restricts where paroled offenders may live and requires electronic monitoring of their whereabouts, the state has recorded a 44% increase in those registered as transients, according to a report released by California's Sex Offender Management Board.

The law prohibits ex-offenders from living within 2,000 feet of places where children gather, but it lacks adequate definitions of such places, the report says. And in some counties and cities, the law's residency restrictions make large swaths of housing off-limits.

Unresolved questions about major parts of the law make it impossible to determine whether the state is safer now from sex offenders, panel member said. Some said the law could be making things worse.

Tom Tobin, the board's vice-chairman and a psychologist, said that homelessness removes offenders from their support systems, such as family members, which increases the chances they will commit new crimes.

"I see homelessness as increasing overall risk to public safety, and as a very, very undesirable consequence of probably a well-intended law," he said.

Officials on the panel said in interviews that many parts of the law, which involves harsher sentencing for sex offenders, were not complicated. But many California locales are not fully enforcing it because of confusion about who is covered by it and how it should be applied, according to the report, which is the first formal look at the workings of the controversial measure, approved as Proposition 83 in November 2006.

The 15-member board was created by lawmakers and the governor to examine how the state handles sex offenders.

There are 67,710 registered sex offenders in California communities, the report says. The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has identified 4,345 offenders on parole that it says are subject to the law, but members of the state panel said it is unclear who else may be because the law is vague.

The number of transient sex offenders who could be homeless or moving from house to house increased from 2,000 more than a year ago to 2,879 today. "If they're transient or if they're homeless, that might actually bring their risk [of re-offending] up quite a bit," said Suzanne Brown-McBride, the board's chairwoman and the director of a victim-assistance group in Sacramento.

The report pointed out that what enforcement there is generates millions of dollars in costs to the cash-strapped state.

California's corrections agency is spending an estimated $20 million a year to monitor more than 3,000 paroled sex offenders by global positioning system satellite technology. That is a fraction of those who would eventually have to be watched.

The law also reduced from two to one the number of past sex crimes that requires an offender who leaves prison to be evaluated by a mental health expert.

The purpose is to determine whether he or she is a "sexually violent predator" and eligible for commitment to a mental hospital.

The new evaluations increased costs to the state from $3 million to $27 million, the report said. But confinements did not markedly increase, Brown-McBride said.

The report suggests that the public misunderstands the best way to protect against sex offenders.

It cited studies showing that residency restrictions in other states did not reduce the number of new crimes committed by sex offenders.

And it cited a national survey that found nine out of 10 sex crimes are committed by acquaintances or relatives of victims, undercutting the notion that keeping them away from schools and parks makes a difference.

Brown-McBride said the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the law's sponsors, need to answer basic questions before statewide enforcement is possible. In addition to the issue of definitions -- what constitutes a park, for example, and which agencies should monitor offenders -- the questions include the law's failure to identify which offenders are covered.

State corrections officials, the state attorney general, local law enforcement agencies and others have differing interpretations.

The state Supreme Court is also weighing a challenge to the law from some sex offenders who say it is unconstitutionally being enforced retroactively against them based on old crimes.

In a statement, the governor's office said that he welcomed the report's "valuable analysis and recommendations to help deal with some needed adjustments to Jessica's Law."

michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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