Sept. 1 2010 09:57 AM

How a state law increased California's homeless sex offender population by almost 6,000 percent

For many sex offenders, a tent becomes home for the duration of their parole.
Photo by Kelly Davis
Laura Arnold is standing by her car, shivering in a white hooded sweatshirt, jeans and sandals. It's just past 8:30 on a chilly July evening, and the fog's starting to roll in.

"I'm cold and I'm tired," she sighs. She's ready to head home. A San Diego County deputy public defender, she has to be at Donovan State Prison early the next morning. As she starts to climb into her car, two guys approach; they're looking for her. And, a few minutes later, two more. They've shown up hoping Arnold can help them—quite literally—get out of here. She pulls out a yellow legal pad and starts with the same questions she's been asking other men for the last hour.

When were you released on parole? Who's your agent? What's your most recent felony conviction? What's your 290 offense?

A 290 is a sex offense; the guys Arnold's talking to are all registered sex offenders who, each night, return to this place— the exact location of which, as well as the full names of the men who camp here, CityBeat agreed not to disclose. They say their parole agents pointed them to this five-block area because it's one of the few parts of the city that's not too close to schools or parks. It's near public transportation and public-storage units, and it's a relatively safe place for men who, for the most part, never experienced homelessness until the day they were released from prison.

In 2006, when voters approved Jessica's Law, the ballot measure that, among other things, bars sex offenders on parole from living within a 2,000-foot radius of schools or parks—and allows cities and counties to implement further restrictions—there were only 88 sex offenders in the state who claimed to be homeless. Now that number's up to 5,064 (as of Aug. 1), more than a 5,700-percent increase in less than four years.

Parole agents have no discretion over whom the law applies to.

"It doesn't matter whether or not we agree with the ordinances or agree with the law, and it doesn't matter whether or not we believe that there's no nexus between a guy who committed indecent exposure 20 years ago and him being near a park, we still have an obligation to enforce the law," says Margarita Perez, deputy director for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's adult parole operations.

Homelessness has been described as an "unintended consequence" of Jessica's Law, even though critics of the ballot measure warned that densely populated urban areas, especially those with a short supply of affordable housing, would see a spike in homeless sex offenders if the law passed (with rare exception, parolees must return to the county in which they committed their crime). In San Diego County, roughly 73 percent of residential areas—the red portions of the map below—are off-limits to sex offenders on parole. That may sound appealing to parents and lawmakers, but, experts say, it doesn't increase public safety.

"When you're homeless, it's much more difficult to maintain a stable lifestyle," says California Deputy attorney General Janet Neeley, who sits on the state's Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) and provides the board with regular updates on the number of transient 290 registrants.

"Obviously, you don't have a place to sleep or shower, so it's hard to get a job and keep a job," she says. "Having a steady job and having family ties and living in a place where you have a support person all are factors associated with less risk of re-offense."

Neeley says that SOMB has advocated for policies that limit where high-risk offenders are allowed to be—like parks and other places where children gather—rather than where they're allowed to live.

"Where they live is really irrelevant under the research," she says.

But any changes to Jessica's Law would require the support of two-thirds of the state Legislature and the approval of the governor. Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher, a Republican who authored Chelsea's Law, the recent legislation that increases penalties for certain sex offenses, says that in crafting the bill, he took SOMB's recommendations seriously. But, he says, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is opposed to amending Jessica's Law's residency restriction, so it was pointless to try to do anything this year. Fletcher says he's willing to work with SOMB and with the state Senate's Public Safety Committee on possibly amending the law during the next legislative session.

"It's hard; these are difficult things, and they're difficult to change," Fletcher says. "What I pledged to Mark Leno [a Democrat who chairs the Senate's Public Safety Committee] is that we'd come back next year and do something that makes sense. I don't know what it'll look like, or if we'll get there, but we'll try to work on it next year."

But that doesn't help a guy like Adrian. One of the late-comers on the cold July evening, he'd like to live with his mom, but her City Heights home is too close to a school. He hopes Laura Arnold can ask a judge to grant him emergency relief from the residency restriction, pending the outcome of a larger legal challenge to the law that could take a year or more to resolve. Adrian tells Arnold that his 290 offense—rape—dates back to 1995 when he was 21. When she asks if the crime involved a child, Adrian responds with an emphatic "No."

Four years ago, Adrian was convicted of marijuana possession with the intent to sell. When he came out of prison, he found out he was subject to Jessica's Law. This is a situation Arnold says she's increasingly seeing— parolees whose sex offenses date back a decade or more, prior to Jessica's Law's passage. Though they're currently on parole for a non-sexual offense, they must comply with the residence restrictions.

Only 36, Adrian has full-blown AIDS. He goes to his mom's house during the day to take his medication and shower, but at night, he heads over to this area. He suffers from neuropathy and frequent seizures. "Three days ago, I woke up to one," he says. "It's no picnic."

He's been able to get hotel vouchers twice—for a week, then for 13 days. "Even my parole officer says, ‘I wish I could do more for you,' but he says his hands are tied."

Arnold can only help the people who she can prove, to a judge, would have stable housing if not for Jessica's Law. Maybe they have a small monthly income that'll get them a cheap hotel room Downtown or, like Adrian, they have family they can live with and an illness or disability that makes forced homelessness cruel and unusual punishment. But if the person's crime involved a minor, they can't live in a house with a child. Those are the people she can't help.

"And it's a shame, because a person who commits a sex crime against a 15-year-old girl, it's very unlikely that they pose any threat to a 2-year-old boy, or a 15-year-old boy, for that matter," she says. "It's kind of this one-size-fits-all treatment of sex offenders by our government at all levels that is causing this misery."

Other guys, like Bill, say they'd rather remain homeless. He has a job, but it doesn't pay enough to cover rent. He has family who live nearby, but they won't let him move in because it means their address will be listed next to his name on the Megan's Law website.

"They're frightened," he says. SOMB's Neeley acknowledges this sort of Catch-22: "People get upset when they find out that [a sex offender] lives next door, even though we want to know where they live," she says.

The number of men who sleep in this particular area each night is hard to estimate. There are rules against congregating—and against sleeping on private property—so, many of them disperse into the dark when it's time to bed down. Some, like Don, have asked property owners for permission to sleep there as long as they're gone by 6 a.m.

"I show my appreciation by keeping the [area] clean," Don says. "Yesterday, I pulled all the weeds. Twice a day, I pick up cigarette butts and the trash that employees leave."

Don is sitting on the ground next to his neatly kept tent—though he's 69 years old, has arthritis and speaks in a halting rasp, the result of throat disease, he's insisted that a reporter sit in his folding chair. His most recent offense was selling drugs, which he says he did to help pay for medical expenses. His sex offense, child molestation, dates back to 1994. He claims he was falsely accused of molesting the daughter of a woman living at the rooming house he was managing at the time.

He has a monthly income of $835. When he got out of prison, he tried to get a place Downtown where he'd lived on and off for 17 years, but was told it was off limits to sex offenders on parole because it was too close to the grassy area behind Petco Park known as "Park at the Park."

"I just want a place to live," he says. "I don't know how many years I have left. Once I find a place to live, I'll spend the whole $835. I'll get a job. I have a whole list of skills…. If I have to get a garbage can with wheels on it and put a broom and rake in it, I will do that. I will go and ask businesses, ‘Can I clean your area?'" But his goals are tempered by cynicism.

He asks the purpose of this article. "We won't get sympathy or help from anybody," he says. "Every day they let out more 290s. I don't see why they just don't line us up against a wall and shoot us."

Robert, another 290, estimates that at one point, at least two-dozen guys were sleeping in one spot, their tents and sleeping bags lined up against a wall. He's been out of prison and homeless for two years. He's staked out a place for his tent and argued his claim when parole agents said the camp was growing too large. Now, this particular camp's down to five or six guys.

"I said to myself, The 2,000-foot rule's not going to go away; things aren't going to change. Can you live with this? I've slept out there under hailstorms, set up in rain, baked in Santa Anas. I've put up with the bugs and the car noises and all the crap out there. I can do it, and I will do it. But when they go out of their way to make life more miserable, I just get outraged and I feel powerless to do anything."

Robert, like at least a dozen men CityBeat spoke to, says he's been told not to remain in any one place for more than two hours unless he gets prior approval from his parole agent.

For Robert, this means parceling out his day in two-hour time slots: two hours at a bookstore, where he can discreetly charge his GPS device—transient registered sex offenders, all of whom wear GPS ankle bracelets, are required to spend two hours each day charging the device—two hours practicing his guitar on a picnic bench, two hours at a movie.

"If you've ever seen the movie Groundhog Day, the difference between me and that guy is that I'm on the guitar and he's on the piano. It's the same thing; it's just boring as hell," he says.

Perez, the parole deputy director, said the policy against spending too much time in one place was intended to keep sex offenders on parole from trying to get around the residence restrictions.

"What we found is that the offenders, they would register as transient, they would tell their parole agent that they were transient, but then when we looked at the [GPS] tracks, we found that on a regular basis, they were spending time at address X when, in reality, that was where they were living."

The policy wasn't intended to result in an even more transient existence, she says.

"If agents are imposing that kind of very restrictive direction with no discretion, then that's an error that we need to correct."

When CityBeat told some of the guys what Perez had said, they shrugged it off—it doesn't matter, they say; they're not going to challenge it. Things are different for them, especially since John Gardner, a convicted sex offender, was charged with raping and murdering two teenage girls.

"There's always that ax at the back of your neck; always that veiled threat," Robert says.

"You're always looking around," says John, who's been homeless for a year. "Am I compliant? At the same time, you're supposed to have some kind of normal life."

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