Most people reading this will remember when there were no public sex-offender registries—no online portals where you can type in your address and find out if a sex offender is living nearby or sign up to receive an e-mail alert when one moves into your neighborhood. A decade ago, there weren’t folks who memorized names and faces and went door-to-door to let their neighbors know that a sex offender moved in down the street—no one putting up fliers in apartment-building lobbies and laundry rooms.
No sex-offender registry or neighborhood watch would have kept a babysitter from molesting me when I was 6. He was around 16 or 17, the brother of our regular babysitter who filled in whenever his sister was busy. I don’t remember how many times it happened, but I know it was more than once. Years later, I found out that he molested my sister, who was 4, and my best friend, who lived across the street.
At some point I told my mom what happened, but I don’t know what words I used. At 6, “penis,” “vagina” and “sex” weren’t part of my vocabulary. Whatever I said, my mom didn’t believe me—at least that’s what she told me.
Looking back, I think she knew I was telling the truth, but she just didn’t know how to respond.
And then I simply forgot that it ever happened—until my first serious relationship in high school, when I had to admit to the guy that, in my mind, the male penis was a diseased, disgusting thing. A year later I ended up in counseling for severe anxiety and depression. There was a box on a questionnaire asking if I’d ever been the victim of sexual abuse, and that opened the door.
A couple of weeks ago, I threw the babysitter’s name into a national sexual-offender registry. A match came up, but the photo was a guy from Texas who happened to have the same name. I doubt the babysitter went on to become a habitual child molester—statistics suggest that he didn’t. I think it was a case of a sexually confused teen who made a bad decision.
In nine out of 10 sexual assaults, the victim knows the perpetrator. In roughly 35 to 40 percent of those cases, it’s a relative. And if it’s not a relative, it’s mom’s new boyfriend (one of the more common victim-offender relationships) or, as in my case, a babysitter.
“The mythology of the dirty old man in the trench coat with the candy lurking around kids at a school yard is misplaced,” says San Diego County Public Defender Marian Gaston. “The vast majority of sex offenders, they don’t look like that…. It’s not this easily identifiable group of outsiders who can then be cast away. It’s your sister’s new boyfriend; it’s your stepdad.”
The term “sex offender” conjures the kind of monolithic image Gaston refers to—one that’s reinforced by the news media and tough-on-crime politicians, despite evidence to the contrary. Misperception and fear, rather than good empirical research, seem to be what drives sex-offender laws.
A case in point is a new law that takes effect this week in San Diego.
The “Child Protection” ordinance, passed unanimously by the City Council in March, is a spin-off of California’s Jessica’s Law, approved by voters in 2006. Among other things, Jessica’s Law created mandatory sentences for sex offenders, requires that certain sex offenders be outfitted with Global Positioning System (GPS) devices for life and expanded the list of what constitutes a sexual offense. Most controversial are the 2,000-foot-radius “predator-free zones” the law established around schools and parks in which sex offenders who are paroled after Nov. 7, 2006, are forbidden to live (for a look at how this maps out in San Diego County, click here).
The law was named after Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was abducted from her home, raped and killed in 2005 by John Couey, a registered sex offender who lived about 100 yards from the Lunsfords. Couey abducted Jessica by entering the home at night through an unlocked door.
Four unnamed plaintiffs—two from San Diego County—are challenging Jessica’s Law before the state Supreme Court, arguing that the law’s residency restrictions are too broad. None of the four’s crimes involved children.
Despite the court challenge, San Diego went ahead and added more locations to the list of safe zones: city libraries, city parks, amusement parks (SeaWorld, the zoo), video arcades, licensed daycare facilities and businesses that cater to children, like Chuck E. Cheese. (The map factors in only schools and parks.)
Additionally, the San Diego law creates “presence” restrictions that forbid registered sex offenders from being within 300 feet of any of the above locations. While the city’s enhanced residence restrictions apply only to people who commit a sexual offense after the law takes effect, the 300-foot restriction applies to all registered sex offenders.
Sgt. Mark Sullivan, who supervises the San Diego Police Department’s Sex Offender Registration Unit, said enforcement of the presence restriction would likely be complaint-driven.
“We used to get complaints from mothers that would take their kids to the park and say, ‘There’s a weird guy staring at my kids,’ and they’d call the police, the police would show up [and] realize they’re talking to a sex offender,” Sullivan said, “but there was no law that would allow an officer to tell him to leave.”
Now, under the new city law, the individual could be arrested, he said.
Unlike Jessica’s Law, which has no defined punishment for anyone who violates the residence restriction (unless the person’s on parole and, in that case, it’s a parole violation), San Diego’s ordinance makes it a misdemeanor criminal offense, punishable by up to six months in jail.
At the meeting where the City Council voted to implement the law, only one person spoke in opposition. Laura Arnold, a public defender, presented each council member with a 10-page memo that summarized what a number of studies have found: Restricting where a sex offender lives has no influence on whether or not he’ll commit another crime. In fact, Arnold told the City Council, research has found that such restrictions can be counterproductive, pushing sex offenders into low-income communities and rural areas or, worse, onto the street.
In 2006, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, an umbrella group for 84 rape crisis centers and sexual-assault prevention programs, issued a strongly worded position statement opposing Jessica’s Law: “Residency restrictions… don’t make communities safer. Residency restrictions don’t reduce recidivism, don’t improve supervision of offenders and ultimately do not protect children from sex offenders.”
And, according to a study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections that looked specifically at repeat offenders, it really does come down to relationships and not geography: “What matters with respect to sexual recidivism is not residential proximity, but rather social or relationship proximity.”
In 2006, the year before Jessica’s Law went into effect, 2,000 sex offenders registered as transient with their local police agencies. According to recent numbers from the state, 3,140 sex offenders have registered as transient—a 63-percent increase in less than two years. In San Diego, roughly 200 of approximately 1,880 registerd sex offenders have declared themselves homeless.
Sex offenders with permanent addresses are required to register annually or when they move, but transient registrants must check in with the police department every 30 days and provide officers with a general idea of where to find them, Sullivan said.
“They’ve made it very difficult for this population to find housing,” said Steve Kubicek, supervisor of adult parole operations for San Diego County. “With the city, now you’re adding [more locations]. It’s almost as if they’re purging the city of all registrants.”
Transient registrants, Kubicek pointed out, are more likely to commit other crimes. “We may see an increase in drug use when they go on the streets,” he said.
“Jessica’s Law was passed hurriedly in an election year,” he added. “And here we are in an election year.... I think [lawmakers’] intent was absolutely valid, but I think [the city law] was passed prior to evaluating the impact of the residency restriction.”
In Iowa, where a similar 2,000-foot rule has been in place since 2002, the Iowa County Prosecutors Association and more than three-dozen local governments have demanded that the state’s legislature repeal the residence restriction because of the number of offenders who’ve gone underground. And in Miami-Dade County, a reporter for the weekly Miami New Times discovered roughly 30 men living under a freeway overpass, the only place they could legally reside from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. or risk violating probation or parole.
There are other consequences of residency restrictions. Laura Arnold recently had to find a way around the law to get a client into a drug treatment facility that was too close to a school. The client, a former prostitute, is a registered sex offender because she once said “Show me your dick” to a vice cop. “Counseling” a person to expose himself is a sex crime.
Unlike most new laws the City Council enacts, this one got very little discussion; council members talked in general terms about needing to protect children, and Councilmember Ben Hueso talked about how a similar National City ordinance was pushing sex offenders into his district and so the city needed to push back. There was no factual evidence presented to the public as to why the ordinance was needed.
Not only does the ordinance lack any clear reason for being, but also, as written, it contains wrong information, specifically a portion included in the “whereas” statements that lead off the document:
“According to a 1998 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, sex offenders are the least likely to be cured and the most likely to re-offend and prey on the most innocent members of our society, and more than two-thirds of victims of rape and sexual assault are under the age of 18 and sex offenders have a higher recidivism rate for their crimes than any other type of violent felon.”
No such study exists. The information, rather, comes from a talk given by Florence Shapiro, a senator from Texas, at a 1998 conference organized by the Department of Justice. Shapiro was there to discuss “Ashley’s Law,” her overhaul of Texas’ sex-offender rules, prompted by the highly publicized death of Ashley Estell, a 7-year-old who, in 1993, was abducted from a playground and later found strangled. A man named Michael Blair, who’d helped search for the girl, was convicted and sentenced to death for her murder. Though an autopsy found no indication that Ashley had been sexually abused, Shapiro stuck with the story that the girl had been raped, and that’s what she told the audience who gathered for the conference. Blair, 23 years old at the time of the trial and already a convicted child molester, damned himself by telling the jury that he saw nothing wrong with consensual sex with underage girls. (Blair’s conviction is currently on appeal since repeated DNA tests of physical evidence suggest there were two men involved, neither of them Blair.)
Because Blair had served a shortened sentence for a child-molestation case, he became Shapiro’s poster sex offender—if he’d remained in prison, she argued, Ashley would still be alive.
“Sex offenders are a very unique type of criminal,” Shapiro told conference attendees. “I like to say they have three very unique characteristics: They are the least likely to be cured; they are the most likely to re-offend; and they prey on the most innocent members of our society.”
Those words—attributed to a “U.S. Department of Justice study”—have made their way into various pieces of sex-offender legislation, like Jessica’s Law and San Diego’s new ordinance, even though the DOJ included a disclaimer along with the transcript of the conference, saying the contents “do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.”
One part of the statement is true—more than two-thirds of victims of rape and sexual assault are under 18. But the rest of the information isn’t accurate. A number of studies, including two by the Department of Justice (one released in 1997, another in 2003), have found that sex offenders have a much lower recidivism rate than any other type of criminal. According to the 1997 DOJ report, for which researchers tracked 272,111 parolees for three years, only 5.3 percent of the 9,691 sex offenders in the group were rearrested for another sex crime. As for the non-sex-offender cohort, 68 percent were rearrested. Other studies have found higher rates of recidivism among sex offenders—14 percent, on average, and as high as 26 percent—but still lower than for other criminals.
Parole’s Kubicek said his own experience confirms what the studies have found. “It’s very low for us for a new sex offense,” he said.
As the state’s Sex Offender Management Board put it, in its 219-page analysis of California’s sex-offender laws, released in January, “Statements that sex offenders cannot be ‘cured’—a concept generally accepted by experts in this field—have often been misinterpreted to mean that they will inevitably re-offend. In fact, the majority of sex offenders do not re-offend sexually over time.”
Ultimately, though, debates about recidivism mean little when it comes to the population most affected by sexual assault. As Phyllis Shess, the deputy district attorney who heads the DA’s sex offender unit, pointed out, “You have to ask, is 1 percent [recidivism] acceptable? Is 10 percent acceptable? When you’re talking about these kinds of issues, no it isn’t.”
So what’s the answer? Jessica’s Law mandated that all “high-risk” felony sex offenders must wear a GPS device for life, so that their movement can be monitored by law enforcement. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began outfitting all newly paroled sex offenders—regardless of risk level— with some form of GPS device beginning last July.
In December, California was spending $21,000 a day on GPS monitoring, which comes out to $20 million a year. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s office estimated that within 10 years, the cost for GPS monitoring could grow to $100 million annually and continue to increase. Right now local governments are expected to pick up the cost after a person completes parole, an idea that no municipality has yet embraced.
While some studies have found that GPS-monitored offenders have lower recidivism rates, pilot-programs in San Diego and Tennessee found no significant difference between GPS-monitored sex offenders and those not on GPS. It’s not necessarily going to stop someone who’s dead-set on reoffending “It’s GPS, it’s not real-time; you’re not going to get the information until the following day.”
If anything, it stops an offender from absconding, though the device can just as easily be cut off. The Tennessee Department of Corrections warned that GPS devices are a resource drain when used too broadly and shouldn’t be used for life-long monitoring. Successful rehabilitation requires that an offender be given a goal to work toward, the study found.
At a community forum on San Diego’s Child Protection ordinance, Al Killen-Harvey, supervisor in the trauma counseling program at Rady Children’s Hospital, questioned whether GPS devices were the best use of limited resources:
“We only have so much money, and that money’s now gone to looking at these kinds of tracking devices. We’ve wiped out early prevention and education programs that we used to have 15 and 20 years ago where we taught kids about healthy touch and bad touch and how to report it. We’ve wiped out funding for mental-health services for families that are economically distressed, which is a factor that may lead someone to cross a boundary that they wouldn’t have crossed before.
“In the macro sense, yeah, we’ve missed the mark here and we’re allocating way too much money in an area where the bang for the buck is minimal compared to where the real risk level is,” Killen-Harvey said.
His point on prevention is an important one. Eighty-seven percent of sex crimes committed each year are first-time offenses by people who aren’t already known to the police. It’s a statistic that turns public policy on its head—why put all the attention on the guys we already know about?
“There are agencies out there that have demonstrated that if you do a good public health, public awareness campaign, including a [hotline for] people who are afraid they might hurt a child… you can actually reduce the incidence of sexual assault in your community,” said Marian Gaston, the public defender. “Why wouldn’t we spend money on that? And instead, we’re busy spending how many millions of dollars on GPS for people who are in their 60s and who are statistically just not going to do it again.”
Then there’s the issue of treatment. The public’s perception is that treatment doesn’t work—a sex offender is a sex offender for life. But not everyone who molests a child fits the clinical definition of a pedophile, for one thing—sometimes other self-destructive factors drive behavior, like drug addiction. Recent studies have shown that, for repeat offenders, therapy does, in fact, lead to lower recidivism rates. California, however, is one of the few states that don’t offer in-custody treatment; only once a person’s released from custody is treatment mandated. It’s puzzling, given that Jessica’s Law is putting people behind bars longer.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has plans to build a new locked treatment facility for sex offenders, but, as the state’s Sex Offender Management Board pointed out in its January report, nothing’s moved beyond the planning stage. Anyone who falls into the category of “sexually violent predator,” based on a pre-release assessment, is turned over to one of two state mental hospitals, rather than paroled, where the individual goes through a multi-phase treatment program, is reassessed and then, if he’s found by a judge to be stable enough, released back into the community.
Once someone’s off probation or parole, treatment ends and it’s rare that those who need it will seek it voluntarily, said Shess, the deputy district attorney.
“We did an experiment through the [county’s] Sexual Offender Management Council, offering resources to people who felt like stresses—whatever it was in their life that might be putting them in a situation where they might re-offend—and no one took advantage of it.” The counseling wasn’t free, but it would have been low-cost, Shess said. And, even then, the county would have made arrangements for someone who couldn’t afford to pay. “We didn’t even get that far. Nobody called to say, ‘Hey I’m a prior offender, I’m feeling like I might need help—no one.”
Around 90 percent of sex offenders aren’t under state or county supervision, Kubicek noted. “The 10 percent that are on parole are receiving the best supervision available,” he said. “My concern is, how do we enforce the 90 percent who are receiving no supervision, who are just registering?”
One might assume that when a sex offender goes in to register with the police each year (or, each month if he’s a transient), there might be a brief talk with a counselor or some other kind of assessment that happens. But, aside from an initial assessment when an individual first registers, there’s not much follow-up. The city of San Diego has only five officers dedicated to the sexual-assault unit (which includes sex-offender management): one sergeant (Mark Sullivan), two detectives and two code-compliance officers who staff the office where more than 100 people go to register each week.
What if, rather than putting restrictions on where a sex offender can live and move about town—strategies whose effectiveness isn’t supported by evidence—the City Council pledged to fund a risk-assessment counselor for the police department? Sure, money’s short, but it’s hard to argue when it comes to protecting kids. Hire an intake counselor or set up a hotline that someone like my mom could call to find out how to respond when her kid says the babysitter’s asking her to do things she doesn’t understand.
Another thing to think about: It’s difficult to turn in a friend or relative when you know that, unlike any other crime, this is one that will follow the person around for the rest of his life. Would my mom have turned the guy over to police if it meant a lifetime of public scrutiny and, in essence, banishment?
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Three San Diegans talk about life as registered sex offenders
"It's spread out too far"
“Thomas” is one of roughly 3,500 parolees (according to January numbers) who have to wear a GPS device around the ankle. He’s asked that nothing be included in this story that might identify him to his parole officer—such as his age, where he lives or why he recently did prison time.
Many years ago, barely out of his teens, Thomas was charged with a misdemeanor for a victimless crime that wasn’t considered a sexual offense until Jessica’s Law made it so. It doesn’t matter that the incident happened long before the law was passed. Because Thomas recently got out of prison, he’s considered a newly released sex offender. He’s not required to have his photo up on the state’s public registry of sex offenders—he’s categorized as a “low-risk” offender—but he must register his name and address with police.
Sex offenders who can afford it have to pay some of the cost of their GPS device, but Thomas doesn’t have a job. He’s in poor health, but he can’t access most public-assistance programs because of his sex-offender status. Until recently, he was living on the street, barred from entering any of the city’s homeless shelters. To charge up the GPS device, every day he had to go to a friend’s place. If the device goes dead, it could count as a parole violation.
“The only thing it’s costing me is mental stress and pain,” he said. His ankle’s swelled up, and he has difficulty walking. He’s terrified that someone will spot the device. “There’s people out there who take the law into their own hands,” he said.
Shortly after John Hartley, the District 3 City Council candidate, pleaded no contest to lewd conduct in public, Thomas gave me a call. He didn’t get it—why is it that he’s considered a sex offender and Hartley’s offense isn’t on the list?
Right now, someone’s helping Thomas pay his bills, but he’s not sure how long that will last. He has children of his own, and he generally supports stronger penalties for sex offenders. He just doesn’t get why a misdemeanor crime is going to follow him around for the rest of his life.
“I wouldn’t think my crime warrants a GPS,” he said. “It’s spread out too far. Low-level offenses shouldn’t be put in that category.”
"They can't crucify people quick enough"
Shortly before California’s sex-offender registry went public, a reporter and cameraman ambushed “Mike” (he asked that his real name not be disclosed) outside his apartment.
“Sir, would you like to comment on your conviction for molesting a child? Are you a threat to the community? Do you realize that there’s a daycare center around the corner?” he recalled.
“You know—Fox News, chasing sex offenders. I didn’t say anything; I just got in my car and drove off. Sure enough, they had a 10-minute piece where they had me and two other guys, you know, living amongst you.”
Nine years ago, Mike was convicted of molesting a 7-year-old girl, one of his son’s friends.
“I had a lot of problems in my life—bad marriage and drinking and porn addiction,” he admits. “I was just a mess, and it just mucked up my thinking to the point where this somehow became an acceptable thing to do. I mean, you’ve talked yourself into it, rationalized it, even though I know it’s wrong.”
The personal problems don’t excuse what he did, he said. “It’s really hard to believe that I did it. I mean, I know that I did it, and I’ll always accept the responsibility for it.”
A judge gave him probation; if he’d been arrested today, he’d be subject to a mandatory three-year sentence under Jessica’s Law. The judge and prosecutor took into account that Mike had never been in trouble before, took responsibility for his actions and, in terms of child molestation, it was a relatively minor incident. His wife divorced him (though they remain close), he had to move out of his house and he’s since had to explain to his son, now 14, what happened—why he couldn’t take him to the community pool, for instance (a term of his probation) and, more recently, why he’s had a tough time finding a job. In 2004, the company Mike was working for—one that kept him on, even though his supervisors knew what happened—moved out of state. Most of his co-workers went to work in the defense industry, but with a felony on his record, he couldn’t get security clearance. A software engineer, he’s gotten by since then with contract work, but every time a company wants to bring him on full-time, they do a background check.
“The background authorization form—that’s become the bane of my existence,” he said.
It’s been several months since he’s been able to get work, and he’s just scraping by financially. He’s signed up with temp agencies, but they always want to know why someone with his education and job experience wants to work a $10-an-hour job.
Shortly after the sex-offender registry went public, someone in his condo complex made up fliers with his photo and apartment number and hung them throughout the building and stuffed them into mail slots. His first reaction was shame and guilt, he said, “but now I’ve got so much anger. I feel sorry for the next person who comes up to my door… because I’m going to be snapping pictures of him, telling him I’m going to be calling the police.
“They just can’t crucify people quick enough,” he said. “So you put all the sex offenders in this group—so now all the evil people are over here and, whew, boy, now the rest of us are safe.”
He’s written a letter he wants to send to state lawmakers. He doesn’t want it to be anonymous, but he’s not mustered the courage to sign his name.
“[There is] a large population of people who want very much to lead healthy, productive, law-abiding lives,” the letter says, “but find it impossible to do so, due to society’s unfair characterization of every registered sex offender has a high-risk sexual predator waiting to attack their children.”
“Do I deserve it?” Mike asks. “I don’t know. I’m not saying I do. People commit crimes and need to be punished, and I’m not saying that it’s—.” He hesitates for a moment.
“I don’t know—I don’t know what the answer is.”
‘I can’t get rid of this’
Last week, for the first time in nearly two decades, “Lisa” (she asked that her name not be disclosed) talked to the person the police would describe as her victim.
“He’s fine,” she said. “He’s, like, ‘Tell me what to do. How can I help? This is ridiculous; I can’t believe you’re still going through this,’” she said he told her.
Seventeen years ago, Lisa’s ex-husband offered her to his nephew as a present for the boy’s 14th birthday. First he gave Lisa, a recovering alcoholic, a glass of vodka.
“Years later, he told me he spiked my drink,” she says. “I’d like to think that so I can live with myself. I don’t know if he would have had to—I was a pretty good drunk.”
Prosecutors later determined that the boy was a few days shy of 14. If he’d been 14, she would have been charged with a less-serious crime.
She pleaded guilty and was ordered into rehab rather than jail time. She was told that if she remained clean for 10 years, she’d get a certificate of rehabilitation and the crime would be expunged from her record.
“And that would be it—it would be over. It would be done,” she said.
“I kept watching the clock, and six months before my 10 years, I went to a lawyer and I said, ‘Here’s all my paperwork. Let’s go through this stuff so I can get rid of this.’ And he said, ‘You can’t do this—the law changed. If you had come to me last month, I could have probably slipped it through.’”
Then she got a letter from the California Department of Justice saying her photo and home address was going up on the state’s public sex-offender registry. Her attorney, public defender Juliana Humphrey, managed to get Lisa off the public registry, but not before her photo was up for two weeks. In that short time, she got a couple of angry phone calls and, last year, a neighbor asked Lisa if she knew that a sex offender used to live at Lisa’s address, unaware that Lisa was that woman.
Last month, she was notified that her record was expunged. “I was walking on air,” she said. Then, another letter arrived saying her exemption from the public registry was no longer valid.
“If they put me on, every e-mail in the neighborhood is going to go off,” she said. Her neighbors are the sort who sign up for alerts.
Sex-offender registries were made available to the public as a community service—to let parents know whom they should tell their kids to avoid. But the information on most state registries is sparse—you get the person’s name, photograph, what they’ve been convicted of and, in most, but not all, cases, their home address. You don’t know how long it’s been since the person committed the crime, if they’re on parole or probation or if they’ve successfully completed those steps.
“Law enforcement knows who they are,” said Phyllis Shess, head of the San Diego County District Attorney’s Sex Offender Unit. But if a member of the public wants more accurate information, he or she would have to look up the person’s court file. “It puts a little bit more responsibility on each of us, of course,” Shess said.
“For awhile they talked about putting categories” on the website, Lisa said, “but we all just seem to be in one big lump. You’re working on people’s fears.”
Lisa’s not able to volunteer at her daughter’s school or chaperone field trips—doing so requires a background check—nor sell her artwork at a local farmers market. That requires a background check, too. If her picture goes public, “I lose everything,” she said.
“You take all the crap, keep your head down and hope that some day it’ll go away.”
For additional information:
Department of Justice report: Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994
Department of Justice report: Sex Offenses and Offenders
Legislative Analyst's Office analysis of Prop. 83 (Jessica's Law)
Stanford University's California Corrections and Policy Series PDF: "Controlling Sex Offender Re-Entry"
(includes statewide 2,000-foot-restriction maps)
Miami New Times: "Sex Offenders Set Up Camp"