Sex Offender Housing Scarce
Handcuffed by new laws, public anxiety and the objections of politicians, state corrections officials are struggling as never before to find housing for a steady stream of high-risk sex offenders after they are released from prison.
In Solano County, officials who could find no other options have resorted to housing a handful of sex offenders in a state parole office. The parolees, whose crimes range from child molestation to statutory rape, are sleeping on cots and showering at gyms. They wear satellite tracking devices, face an 8 p.m. curfew and are watched overnight by two agents.
Their unusual fate illustrates a dilemma that is intensifying in California: Nobody has the welcome mat out for sex offenders. With the passage of stricter laws governing where they can live, parole officials are hard-pressed to find them homes.
“Housing them in a parole office is not an ideal situation,” said Elaine Jennings, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “But at this point we are out of options.”
The quandary is the latest flare-up in California, where roughly 7,500 sex offenders -- about 2,000 of them classified as high risk -- are on parole, most for three years.
Earlier this month, a group of sex offenders housed near Disneyland was moved after legislators said their proximity to the amusement park, though legal, endangered children.
Placement of paroled two-time rapist David Allyn Dokich in Riverside County sparked months of protests in spring 2005, and a year ago county supervisors approved a local ordinance barring sex offenders from living near schools, parks or recreation centers and requiring them to wear electronic monitoring devices at all times. Last week, the county established a multi-agency task force to closely monitor registered sex offenders.
The housing challenge grew tougher in California this year with the signing of a new law preventing convicted child molesters classified as high-risk from living within half a mile of any kindergarten through high school, public or private, while they are on parole. Offenders are deemed high-risk, Jennings said, based on the nature of the crime, the number of victims and the likelihood they will offend again.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have criticized the Corrections Department for failing to create an inventory of suitable housing before the new residency rules took effect. Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk), a former parole agent, said failure to do so had led to the inappropriate placement of sex offenders, including those temporarily housed near Disneyland.
More than 120,000 convicts are paroled from California prisons each year; most receive $200 and orders to report to their agent within a few days. Sex offenders, however, are a class apart, and their transition back to society is scrutinized far more intensely because of the new residency and monitoring laws.
Although corrections officials are not legally obligated to find housing for sex offenders, they said they take that step -- and, when necessary, use state funds to pay for the housing -- in the name of public safety. Officials said they could not estimate how much such housing costs the state, but the bills are typically paid at least until parolees find permanent housing and get on their feet financially.
The alternative, parole agents said, is for some offenders to wind up homeless.
“We want to be able to put our fingers on these guys whenever we want to,” said Jerome Marsh, state parole administrator for an area that encompasses a large part of Los Angeles County.
“Some taxpayers don’t like us spending state money on sex offenders,” he said, “but we need to be able to make unannounced visits, do searches to make sure they’re compliant [with conditions of parole] ... and know if they’re suddenly missing.”
Although Solano County is the only region where ex-convicts have been housed in a government office, the new restrictions have hit almost every urban county. In San Francisco, for example, officials have identified only a few areas that comply with the limits because of the population density.
Marsh said the same is true in much of Los Angeles County, where 245 sex offenders fall under the new residency law.
Marsh cited a case that illustrates scenarios that have unfolded since the law took effect in January. In one instance, a Pomona man who uses a wheelchair and lived with a friend who was also his caregiver had to leave the home because it was too close to a school. He was moved to a motel.
Officials said one unintended consequence of the residency limits has been to funnel sex offenders into more rural areas, where schools are not as close together. Local politicians have responded with complaints that they are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden.
The wishes of victims can also complicate matters, because they are entitled to request that an offender be housed up to 35 miles from their home.
With apartments and other suitable dwellings at a premium, officials have housed many offenders in motels. That has created another problem, Marsh said: gouging. In some cases, a motel operator might charge $200 one week, $300 the following week and $350 the week after.
“They know we’re in a pretty desperate situation,” Marsh said, “and they’re taking advantage.”
A proposed November ballot initiative, dubbed Jessica’s Law, would add still more residency limits for such parolees, including barring them from living within 2,000 feet of a park. Local governments could add prohibited sites, including child-care centers and water parks.
In response to the predicament, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently appointed a task force to suggest ways to better track the parolees. The governor also has increased the use of satellite monitoring, with roughly 450 high-risk offenders now wearing tracking devices in a handful of counties.
Bermudez, co-chairman of the task force, said the panel “will look at this thing from top to bottom and make sure these guys get proper supervision and the proper place to live on the streets. Now we have a huge problem with agents scrambling all over the place,” he said, “and you have a governor who is running for reelection and doesn’t want this issue to explode.”
Statewide, about 100,000 sex offenders are required to register in cities where they live and work. The information is available to the public through the Internet or by telephone.
But fewer than 10% of the 100,000 are on parole and thus require state supervision. Some are in mental hospitals or on probation; most are not routinely monitored in any way.
Despite public perceptions, research shows recidivism rates for sex offenders are lower than for the general criminal population. Also, most molesters and rapists know their victims, reducing risk to the general public.
Joan Petersilia, a UC Irvine professor and national expert on parole who was invited to join the governor’s task force, said simply restricting the housing of sex offenders can give the public “a false sense of security.”
“What people often don’t understand is that limiting where someone lives has no effect on their activities or on where they work or travel,” Petersilia said. “So we take this cookie-cutter approach to all sex offenders rather than focusing on those who are truly dangerous.”
A better course, she argued, would be to target the type of sex offenders of most concern to the public: those who prey on children.
In Solano County, state officials said they have no leads on permanent housing for the men bunking in the parole office. All were convicted of crimes involving people they knew.
Shirley Poe, state parole administrator for that area, said she is “looking at everything, even buying a trailer and putting it on a piece of land that is compliant” with the residency law.
“It’s difficult for them, and while I don’t want to paint these guys as angels, they’re still human beings,” Poe said. “But our first priority is public safety, so for now, the office is where they’ll sleep.”
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Many counties maintain lists of local sexual offenders; the lists are generally available at county websites. Most police agencies will also provide such information. Several organizations provide names of offenders in specific areas. Among them:
Los Angeles Times