Feb. 18 2015 11:19 AM

California has the biggest sex-offender registry in the U.S.-for no good reason

sexoffendermob
Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

California is one of only four states that require adults convicted of certain sex crimes to register with local law enforcement each year for life. Crime-free for 50 years? Bedridden? It doesn't matter. This lifetime requirement has turned California's registry into the largest in the country. There are roughly 800,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S., and around 100,000 of them live in California.

Tom Janenko, a detective with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's Sex Offender Management Unit, says he knows of registrants living in nursing homes, still required to annually let law enforcement know where they're living. If they can't come to Sheriff's headquarters, someone will go to them.

"If they are physically capable of coming in, their caregivers will bring them in in wheelchairs," Janenko says.

In 2011 and again in 2013, former state Assemblymember Tom Ammiano introduced legislation to change California's sex-offender registry to a tiered system. Under Ammiano's proposals, a person who committed a low-level offense, poses little to no risk of re-offending and hasn't committed a new sexual offense or a violent felony would be removed from the registry after 10 years. Moderate-risk offenders would be removed after 20 years and lifetime registration would be limited to the most serious offenders. Both bills died in committee.

In April, the California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB), which includes representatives from all areas of law enforcement and experts in sex-offender treatment, published a paper that makes the case for a tiered registry, and followed it up with a draft bill similar to Ammiano's. The deadline to introduce new legislation is Feb. 27 and, as of Feb. 17, an author had yet to be identified, says Janet Neeley, a deputy attorney general and member of CASOMB, in an email to CityBeat.

Janenko acknowledges that it's tough legislation to carry.

"My personal opinion, if you're a politician and you're concerned about being reelected, and you put your name on something… it's going to be touted as you're soft on sex offenders; you're trying to weaken the law," Janenko says. "But when you have an organization like the Sex Offender Management Board, all experts in the field, and they're all looking at this issue and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we recommend,' somebody should listen."

Among the arguments that the CASOMB paper makes for a tiered registry is the fact that no studies have found a positive correlation between public registries and public safety. Instead, it costs local law enforcement an estimated at $24 million a year, statewide, to handle new registrations and re-registrations. That total doesn't take into account the costs of enforcing registry laws and prosecuting individuals who fail to register, the paper says.

Requiring risk-blind lifetime registration for all offenders is a waste of resources, says Tom Tobin, a psychologist and CASOMB's vice-chair.

"Let's put our energy where the risk is highest, because tons of research shows that that's effective criminal-justice policy," he says.

"It is simply not true that all sex offenders reoffend," Tobin says. "The longer someone continues to be in the community and has not committed a new sex offense, the lower that risk goes."

A chart in the CASOMB paper illustrates this point: A study that tracked three groups of sex offenders—high-risk, medium-risk and low-risk—after they'd been released from custody found that, at some point, a person who remains offense-free reaches what's referred to as "the redemption bar"—the point where the risk of re-offense is no greater than for a person with no history of sex crimes. Low-risk offenders hit the redemption bar immediately, medium-risk offenders reached that point after roughly 13 years offense-free and even the cohort of highest-risk offenders hit the redemption bar at 17 years out.

And, the paper notes, there are indirect consequences of a public registry. Having a high concentration of registered sex offenders can drag down property values. More significant is research showing that a public registry causes some victims to remain silent. Nine out of 10 sexual offenses are committed by someone known to the victim—a close friend or family member—meaning having the offender's name, photo and address public could effectively out a victim.

Opponents of a tiered registry argue that the state's risk-assessment system is flawed and point to John Gardner, a registered sex offender convicted in 2010 of the rape and murder of two local teens. While on parole for a 2000 offense, Gardner was evaluated and found to pose a low-to-moderate risk of re-offending (though the crime he was convicted of in 2000 would have put him in the middle tier, or 20-year registry). Offenders, opponents argue, should be treated as potentially high-risk.

"Reality doesn't match that," Tobin says. "Will there be outliers? Will there be another John Gardner? Of course there will.

Will there be another terrorist bombing? Another airplane disaster? Probably. Do we do the best we can to prevent that? Yes. Are we going to strip-search everybody who gets on an airplane? No. Where's the break line on cost-benefit?"

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Source: CASOMB
Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

In 1979, at age 26 and amid a struggle with alcoholism, Frank Lindsay was convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14. He declines to discuss the details of the crime, saying only, "What's listed on the [Megan's Law] website is what I was convicted of. Was it a heinous, gruesome crime? No, it wasn't." He served six months in jail and, as part of a plea agreement, was told that if he successfully completed probation, he wouldn't have to register as a sex offender and his case would be dismissed.

But changes to federal law in the mid-'90s reversed that guarantee and Lindsay was required to register. A later challenge to the law found its retroactive application constitutional because, the Supreme Court decided, being on the registry isn't punishment.

"Yeah, right," Lindsay says. 

Initially, the registry was available only to law enforcement. Then, with Megan's Law in 1996, the public could check registries at their local police or sheriff's station. Within a year, Lindsay says, he was asked to move his business—bottling and selling water—out of the building he'd been leasing for 11 years. Lindsay lives in a small town in Central California, and he suspects the property owner found out his name was on the registry.

Then, in 2004, California launched the Megan's Law website, which provides photos and home addresses for roughly 80 percent of registrants.

"The media had been coaching everyone to go to the site, check and see where your hazards are," Lindsay says. He wasn't surprised when he slowly started losing clients.

In 2010, Lindsay arrived home to find that a man with a sledgehammer had broken into his house. The man told Lindsay he'd found his address on the public registry and was there to kill him. Lindsay escaped unharmed, but the experience prompted him to write a book about his personal quest for redemption.

In 2012, Lindsay was installing a reverse-osmosis system in Janice Bellucci's house and mentioned his book. To be kind, Bellucci bought a copy.

"I thought, quite frankly, it might be about plumbing or surfing," she tells CityBeat. "Boy, did it change my life."

Bellucci was a civil attorney at the time, married to a minister and raising two daughters. She was angry at what Lindsay had been through and wanted to do something. Initially she thought she'd advocate quietly, but she quickly realized how few people were advocating at all.

"I'm a woman and a mother of two daughters. I didn't think I was the likeliest candidate to become an advocate for this group of people. But it just became an issue that I couldn't ignore," she says.

During the last few years, she's focused entirely on reforming California's patchwork of sex-offender laws. Since 2012, she's either sued or threatened to sue three counties and more than 80 cities over the constitutionality of so-called "presence" restrictions that limit where a registered sex offender can live, work or physically be. In many cities, any registered sex offender, regardless of crime or risk, would be essentially banished under these laws. Only two cities have refused to revise or repeal their ordinances. 

But Bellucci's first action was to update Lindsay's information on the state's public registry.

"My best guess is Frank Lindsay wouldn't have been attacked if the person had known how old his conviction was," she says.

On California's Megan's Law website, each registrant's page includes fields for "Year of Last Conviction" and "Year of Release." For the majority of registrants, these fields are blank. Though state law says that by July 1, 2010, the California Department of Justice was supposed to update registrants' profiles to include that information, Bellucci estimates that roughly 90 percent of the profiles are lacking those two dates.

"You've got somebody's current photo up there and you don't have the year they're convicted. A lot of people jump to the conclusion, They've got a current photo; oh, they must have just done it recently. And that really harms people when it comes to employment opportunities and also when it comes to housing opportunities, because all they've got to do is go look on the Megan's Law website," she says.

So, when a registrant calls Bellucci for assistance, the first thing she does is check the website to see if the person's information is correct, "because registrants can't go and look at their own profiles," she says. It's against the law. "How ridiculous is that?" 

The process to get that information updated takes time and costs money. A registrant has to request an official copy of his rap sheet from the California Department of Justice for a $50 fee and then send it to the DOJ division that handles the Megan's Law website. Bellucci's heard from a number of registrants who've followed these steps only to find out their information was never updated. So, she provides them with a cover letter. From there, it takes roughly 60 days for the corrections to be made.

Bellucci also heads up the California chapter of Reform Sex Offender Laws (RSOL). Each month, she and Lindsay drive to a different part of the state for a meeting. Bellucci lives in Santa Maria, Lindsay in Grover Beach, just south of San Luis Obispo, and earlier this month, they drove to San Diego for a Saturday-morning meeting at California Western School of Law, where a basement classroom quickly filled beyond its 35-person capacity. Roughly half of attendees were registered sex offenders (Bellucci prefers "registered citizens"), the other half family members of registrants.

A large part of the meeting focused on the registry and its problems. One attendee who'd successfully petitioned a court so that he no longer shows up on the public registry talked about sheriff's deputies' recent visit to his upscale neighborhood to verify his address. They showed up in tactical gear, leading his neighbors to wonder what he'd done. Another man had just moved to California from Louisiana, where he wasn't required to register because he'd committed his crime 51 years ago. But he has to register here.

After the meeting, a woman talked to CityBeat about her and her husband being harassed by neighbors because, for a time, her son was on the registry under their address. She says she tried to organize a meeting to explain to the neighbors why her son posed no threat, but she was rebuffed.

"We lived in fear every day that somebody was going to be hurt in our family, and that's what everybody deals with," she says. "It's the safety of our own families that we're concerned about."


Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.

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