There’s no evidence Jessica’s Law works, California officials say

Posted on January 15, 2009. Filed under: Crime, The Law |

A state board says tight residency limits on sex offenders have driven many to homelessness, which could propel them back into crime. The state spends $25 million housing some of the offenders.

By Michael Rothfeld

January 14, 2009

Reporting from Sacramento — A state panel is urging the governor and legislators to change “Jessica’s Law,” saying its restrictions on where sex offenders can live are counterproductive and calling the nearly $25 million a year spent to house them a poor use of taxpayers’ money.

The residency restrictions, passed by voters more than two years ago in Proposition 83, have never been shown to prevent new crimes and may reduce public safety, the panel says.

Since 70% of voters approved the initiative, “the availability of suitable housing has plummeted,” the state’s Sex Offender Management Board said in a report sent to lawmakers this week.

The state previously had more modest residency limits that applied only to certain sex offenders. Jessica’s Law expanded the restrictions to all sex offenders and greatly reduced the locations where they could reside.

Barring sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, parks and other areas where children gather has driven many into homelessness, an unstable situation that can propel them back to crime, according to the board.

State corrections officials say they find housing and pay rent for about 800 who are on parole, but they cannot house them all; the number of homeless sex offenders on parole is 12 times as large as it was when the law was passed.

“It seems unwise to spend such resources as a consequence of residence restriction policies which have no track record of increasing community safety,” board members wrote.

Proposition 83 expanded both the categories of sex offenders included and the limits on where they could live.

Scott Kernan, undersecretary for adult operations at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said his agency is discussing plans to scale back its housing of sex offenders, some of whom have their rent paid by the state for several years while they are on parole, to a shorter period such as 60 or 90 days.

“I don’t know that we can continue to pay long-term for sex offender housing in the current fiscal situation,” Kernan said.

He said the housing, often in motels or halfway-house settings where multiple sex offenders live, was always meant to be transitional. But with the passage of Jessica’s Law, he said, many have been housed for longer because they have little money and their families’ residences may fall in a prohibited zone.

And Kernan said some local officials have created extra barriers — for example, creating parks on highway medians to make certain neighborhoods off-limits.

The Sex Offender Management Board was created in 2006, with 17 members to be appointed by lawmakers and the governor. It includes state and local officials from law enforcement, judicial and social services backgrounds.

It has advocated for the state to focus on the offenders who pose the highest risk and to use practices — such as treatment — that have been shown to work. The state does not provide treatment while offenders are in prison. Jessica’s Law makes little distinction between high- and low-risk offenders, addressing all of them equally with lifetime residency restrictions and satellite tracking.

State lawmakers can alter the initiative with a two-thirds vote. Robert Coombs, a spokesman for the board’s chairwoman, said the members found it infeasible to call for abolishing the residency restrictions, given the sweeping voter approval of Proposition 83. He said state and local officials have the power to interpret the law to allow more housing for sex offenders, but the board believes that the likelihood of legislators fixing the problems in more comprehensive ways — at least in the short term — is slim.

“I can’t imagine a policymaker who would put their name on something that says we want to make it easier for sex offenders to find housing,” Coombs said. “Even though it’s a strong public safety concept,” lawmakers would be setting themselves up for political attack.

Responding to the criticism that residency restrictions have no benefit to public safety, state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), an author of the initiative, said, “I do believe the general public would say a child molester should not live across the street from a school.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a strong supporter of Proposition 83, has said he is open to revisions but has not suggested any.

Jeanne Woodford, a former state corrections secretary under Schwarzenegger, said the residency restrictions should be abolished. She said many states are reexamining their handling of sex offenders in light of studies showing that there is little utility in registration requirements and other laws the public has supported to keep track of them.

“The bottom line is, this is really what happens when we allow our emotions to get the best of us, as opposed to dealing with the facts,” she said.

michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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