Some critics of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza’s order temporarily staying enforcement of the sex offender residency restrictions of Jessica’s Law, reported by The Times on Nov. 5, are exploiting the legitimate fears of decent people. These critics ignore the reality that these particular residency restrictions apply to all paroled sex registrants, most of whom have never harmed a child, and do not effectively protect our children. In fact, by creating a crisis of homelessness among sex registrants, broad residency restrictions actually endanger our community. Ordinarily, the recidivism rate among the vast preponderance of sex offenders is low. Why destabilize them and create a far greater risk of reoffending? Indeed, Espinoza’s order came after the defenders of the residency restriction failed to offer any evidence or argument to the contrary.
To be clear, a separate residency law prohibits the small group of sex offenders who have actually victimized children and are designated as “high risk” from living near schools. Moreover, all parolees required to register as sex offenders continue to be monitored by GPS bracelets at all times; Espinoza’s order did not revoke or change those restrictions. Those who claim that as the result of the court order child predators will now be living near schools are misleading the public.
The real effect of the order is that people like William Baker (name changed) will be permitted to have a roof over their heads. In the 1970s, Baker committed a sex offense against an adult and served an appropriate prison sentence. Baker is now completely blind and unable to care for himself. After the passage of Jessica’s Law, Baker was not permitted to live in the room his sister provided both him and his wife; like nearly all residential units in Los Angeles, Baker’s resident was within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Instead, Baker had to move every two hours all day to prove that he was not “residing” anywhere near a school or park. Baker would ride public transportation all night to get some sleep and remain compliant with the residency restriction.
Forcing individuals like Baker into homelessness not only does nothing to protect children, it also comes at a great financial cost to taxpayers. The best way to manage parolees is to have them in stable housing where they can be treated, managed and monitored. In the wake of Jessica’s Law, the state has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in Los Angeles County alone to subsidize expensive motel rooms and crowded rental units in the tiny slivers of compliant residential land. The vast majority of those who receive these subsidies could otherwise live with their own families at no cost to the taxpayer.
And this state money could easily run out, starting a public witch hunt in earnest. In fact, very recently a residential treatment center was firebombed and shot up because one or more assailants assumed that sex offenders resided there.
Let’s focus on sound practices based on fact and law and move away from the political fear-mongering that is as counterproductive as the residency restriction itself. The alarmism could unleash uncontrollable vigilantism. This is a case highlighting the crucial importance of judicial independence. Espinoza’s ruling was based on clearly established legal precedent; it was righteous, and he was courageous.
Michael P. Judge is public defender of Los Angeles County.