Flanked by Brent and Kelly King and a photo of their slain daughter, Nathan Fletcher announces plans for a new law. Photo by Kelly Davis.
At a March 30 town-hall meeting, someone in the audience asked state Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher whether the law he's proposing, prompted by the murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King, would apply to all registered sex offenders.
California laws generally aren't retroactive, Fletcher replied. But, he added, “the longer you wait, the more children are vulnerable.”
When Fletcher announced plans for Chelsea's Law in early March, he promised to take time to review California's current sex-offender laws, which have been described by experts as incoherent and uncoordinated—laws that were enacted, largely, in the wake of tragic events with no research-based evidence to justify their need.
But only a couple of weeks after that first announcement, Fletcher said he'd introduce the new law in April.
Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Florida who's done extensive research on sex-offender laws, thinks rushing a new law is a bad idea.
“It's important for the public and policy makers to try to resist instant quick-fix, very sweeping kinds of laws,” she said, “because no one law will always be able to prevent every single future crime.”
CityBeat was told Fletcher would be available for an interview but didn't hear from him by press time.
Levenson suggested Fletcher hold off until all the facts of the case are known—“what happened and what went wrong and what we can learn from it,” she said.
The California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) has been tasked with conducting such an investigation. That report's expected to be completed in May.
CASOMB, created by the Legislature in 2006, was charged with assessing California's sex-offender-management practices and recommending changes. It's a 17-member all-volunteer board of experts that range from treatment providers to law-enforcement officials. Though former Assemblymember Todd Spitzer, who co-authored the bill that created the board, recently referred it as “neutered” after the Union-Tribune reported that a few board appointees weren't making it to meetings, seats on the board needed to be filled and the board's budget had been cut, CASOMB's still managed to put out a number of in-depth reports—the most recent in January. The recommendations outlined in the reports, however, have gone largely ignored by policymakers and have been stymied by budget cuts, evident in a 23-page chart included in the January report. Green arrows denote areas where progress has been made based on recommendations. Asterisks denote areas where there's been no progress and down-pointing red arrows show where the state's taken steps back. Red arrows outnumber green 21 to 20, and 110 areas have seen no improvement.
CityBeat spoke to a number of experts and read numerous studies and reports on sex-offender laws for this story. One theme emerged: Expert advice is rarely heeded, and blanket laws that restrict where sex offenders can reside, monitor offender movements and alert the public to where offenders live may seem like good public policy but do little to reduce recidivism. Instead, the laws drain resources and overlook the fundamental realities of sexual offending: 87 percent of all sexual crimes are committed by first-time offenders; between 80 and 90 percent of victims know their offenders and numerous studies show that sex offenders re-offend at a lower rate than any other type of criminal.
“There is no evidence that registration, notification—on the website or in other ways—residence restrictions, GPS tracking have any impact on re-offending,” said Tom Tobin, CASOMB's vice-chair.
Levenson said these laws are intended to cast as wide a net as possible. “But the use of resources needed to put this into place, across the board, for all the lower-risk offenders who may indeed be amenable to rehabilitation, who see the error of their ways, who desire to change their behavior, who are compliant with their parole conditions, then that becomes a pretty hefty fiscal responsibility for a state to bear,” she said.
Jessica's Law, for instance, mandated lifetime GPS monitoring for all sex offenders released from prison after Nov. 6, 2006, but didn't identify funding for such monitoring nor specify who's to do the monitoring once a person's off parole. Fletcher has said publicly that he'd like to institute lifetime GPS monitoring and, at a hearing last week, asked officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) what that would cost. Answer: $1 billion a year. It currently costs the state $60 million a year to monitor all sex offenders on parole, officials said.
“Jessica's Law, by far, is the most costly and least-effective piece of legislation or initiative that I've seen,” said Laura Arnold, a deputy public defender.
In addition to GPS monitoring, Jessica's Law instituted residency restrictions that apply to any sex offender paroled after the law was passed, regardless of offense or risk level.
“When you have laws that prohibit a person who's never committed a crime against any child—and who would never dream in a million years of doing so and has no inclination or predisposition to do so—from residing within a third-mile of any schools, it's plainly irrational,” Arnold said.
Minutes from CASOMB meetings include a running tally of sex offenders who've registered as transient—a 133-percent increase since July 2007. While the public may think this is a boon—fewer sex offenders living in their neighborhoods—the reality is that homelessness and joblessness can trigger recidivism.
“The residency restrictions make it so difficult to place any of these people,” said Jay Adams, spokesperson for the California Coalition on Sexual Offending. “If you have a sex offender who also has a drug problem, it's almost impossible to find a residential treatment program that will take sex offenders.”
Experts agree that the one thing proven to reduce recidivism is targeted treatment.
“Numerous studies have now shown that it reduces re-offending by about 40 percent,” Tobin said, “yet it is regularly seen by many people [as]… somehow being ‘soft' on sex offenders.”
CDCR has never provided in-custody treatment for sex offenders, even though state boards, panels and task forces have recommended it. Though a treatment scheme's been drawn up, there's no funding to implement it. And, in December 2008, CDCR ended specialized treatment for high-risk sex offenders on parole. CDCR Assistant Secretary Oscar Hidalgo said contracting problems caused the program to be put on hold, and there's currently a request for bids for a new contract that would cover 800 sex offenders deemed a high risk to re-offend. Roughly 7,000 sex offenders are currently on parole.
CASOMB and others have recommended that the state implement a three-pronged approach known as the “containment model”: smaller caseloads for parole agents who manage sex offenders, individualized case management for each sex offender, with the offender covering the cost of treatment, and regular polygraph examinations—again, paid for by the offender.
Levenson said polygraph testing, which has been used successfully in Florida, isn't simply about determining whether someone's being truthful.
“During the polygraph interview, very often the client reveals information that is very helpful as a treatment plan,” she said. “If you know that a client is engaging in certain behaviors, then that would be something that can be addressed, can be dealt with, and then perhaps the parole officers could institute some other kinds of conditions that would be designed to prevent that [behavior] from escalating.”
Though polygraph testing has been endorsed by CASOMB and by a task force convened by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, no funding has been allocated to implement it.
One of the things Levenson said California does well is assess a person's risk to re-offend—ironic because corrections officials have been blasted by legislators for not accurately assessing the risk level of John Gardner, the man accused of murdering Chelsea King. Per state law, CDCR uses what's known as the Static 99—a tool used by several other states—which rates an offender on a scale from 1 to 10 based on whether the offender exhibits traits tied to recidivism. Gardner scored a 2.
“That's the best tool that we have right now, according to research,” Levenson said. Deputy Director of Parole Margarita Perez told CityBeat that CDCR uses other information about the offender in conjunction with the Static 99 to get a fuller picture of a person's risk level.
“The Static was not designed to try to predict this kind of offense,” Jay Adams said, referring to Gardner's alleged crime. “I don't think a test will ever be able to predict this kind of offense because it's such a statistically rare occurrence.”
Like Levenson, Adams, who's worked as a clinician in the criminal-justice system for three decades, said more needs to be known about Gardner before changes are made to the law.
“This man, Gardner, is not a child predator. He's not a pedophile; he's not a child molester,” she said. “I don't know what went into making him who he is, but I'd really like to know what happened to him in prison and what happened to him when he was a child.
“Of course he's responsible for this behavior,” she added, “but the more we know about what happened to him as a child, the more we're going to be able to use that information to predict who's likely to do this.”
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