Jessica's Law dilemma: Homeless sex offenders

January 28, 2010 7:01:13 PM PST
The number of convicted sex offenders living on the streets is soaring across the state, according to new figures released to the ABC7 I-Team. It is an unintended consequence of Jessica's Law (Prop 83), passed overwhelmingly by voters a few years ago.

The California Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling next week whether Jessica's Law is so broad and intrusive, that it violates the constitutional rights of convicted sex offenders. But, even more important, the measure meant to protect children could actually be putting us all at risk.

In the city and county of San Francisco, the state's website lists 167 convicted sex offenders as transient or homeless.

"We are actually walking time bombs out here because we are suffering from sleep deprivation," said a paroled sex offender who wished to remain anonymous.

Some of them choose to be homeless, but the 45 sex offenders released from prison to San Francisco after Jessica's Law took effect, are forced to serve their three-year parole living on the streets.

"You're telling them to go out there and live out there and you don't know what he could be conspiring to do," he said. "He sees your movements all day long, he's watching."

Under Jessica's Law, a paroled sex offender can't take up residence within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Checking the map at the parole office in San Francisco, that leaves very few places for sex offenders to live.

The I-Team spoke with San Francisco parole supervisor Armel Farnsworth.

Noyes: The high rent district, the parking lot of the ball park?

Farnsworth: Yes.

Noyes: The toxic waste dump at Hunter's Point?

Farnsworth: Yes.

Noyes: Or out on the golf course?

Farnsworth: The golf course at the Olympic Country Club, yes.

"People should know that what they voted for and what they're getting are total opposites," said a paroled sex offender who showed us his parole paperwork that says "he must maintain a transient status" and "cannot stay at any shelter bed or residential housing" because of Jessica's Law.

He says the measure is not doing what voters expected -- it is not keeping sex offenders away from parks or schools.

Asked if there any restrictions against him as a transient going to a park or going to within 2000 feet of a school, he said, "No, there isn't. You can in fact go from park to park all day long, spending two hours in each of them."

The state's Sex Offender Management Board says the housing restrictions under Jessica's Law are not supported by research. The board gave the I-Team an advanced copy of its new report to the Legislature that says, "There is almost no correlation between sex offenders living near restricted areas" such as schools and parks "and where they commit their offenses."

The report also concludes it is not strangers who pose the biggest threat -- "far more Californians will be sexually victimized in their own homes by acquaintances or family members."

"The state is better served when you figure out where sex offenders should live, not where they shouldn't," said Suzanne Brown-McBride, executive director of the Sex Offender Management Board.

Brown-McBride tells the I-Team no one expected the number of homeless sex offenders to increase so dramatically under Jessica's Law. "The rates honestly have skyrocketed. We went from several hundred offenders being transient in the state of California to now well over 5,000."

That poses a serious challenge for the parole agents who have to keep track of sex offenders.

"We would prefer they weren't transient, so it's easier to supervise an individual that has stable housing," said West Bay District parole administrator Matthew Goughnour.

San Francisco's parole agents have had to give up on home visits for paroled sex offenders and rely on GPS tracking. But it is expensive. The State Department of Corrections spent $65 million on GPS last year, but stopped paying for short-term housing for sex offenders, stopped paying for community-based treatment, and stopped much of the re-entry counseling for sex offenders.

"A sex offender who is successful is one who doesn't reoffend, and if we're doing things to undermine their possibility of being in the community without reoffense, then we're making a mistake," said Brown-McBride.

The author of Jessica's Law, State Sen. George Runner, says he is open to communities loosening the restriction against sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of a park or school.

"If the city of San Francisco felt like 500 feet was a better number, we certainly don't have any issue with that," said Runner. "Our issue has been pretty simple, we just don't think that a person who has molested a child should live across the street from a school."

The California Supreme Court could do away with the residency restriction altogether. The key issues: the law also applies to parolees who have not committed crimes against children, and it sometimes applies to those who committed sex crimes long ago.

We spoke to a man who served time for rape in the 1980s; he was paroled last year after a stolen property conviction, yet Jessica's Law kicked in.

"Upon my release from the state prison, I was informed that I could not maintain any family relationships with my wife, my brother, my niece and nephews and I could not reside in any dwelling," he said.

"It makes them feel they have no future," said registered sex offender Jake Goldenflame who is now an author and advocate pushing for additional counseling for parolees. He also runs a website offering advice for convicted sex offenders about following the law.

Noyes: In your opinion, is the public safer because of Jessica's Law?

Goldenflame: No, no, the public and its children are in greater danger. And I think that it's virtually a miracle something hasn't happened yet.

Noyes: Do these restrictions make a parolee for a sex offense more likely to reoffend, do you think?

Goldenflame: Absolutely, because the offenders are constantly under stress, they're not in treatment, and they're constantly roaming through the city.

In addition to the housing restrictions and GPS, Jessica's Law also brought tougher sentencing guidelines and longer prison terms for sex offenders. We'll have more on this story when the California Supreme Court issues its ruling next week.

To learn more about the background of the sex offenders profiled in this report, and the challenges they face in keeping out of trouble, read the I-Team Blog.