Three-quarters of paroled sex offenders in California who were previously banned from living near parks, schools and other places where children congregate now face no housing restrictions after the state changed its policy in response to a court ruling, according to data compiled at the request of The Associated Press.
The rate is far higher than officials predicted. The state initially expected half of the 5,900 parolees would have restrictions lifted on where they can live or sleep when the corrections department changed its policy in response to the ruling that said the prohibition cannot be broadly applied to all offenders.
Instead, data shows that 76 percent of offenders are no longer subject to the voter-approved restrictions.
Corrections officials said last spring that about half of the convicted sex offenders are considered child molesters who would still be subject to the housing ban.
But even some whose offense involved a child no longer face the 2,000-foot residency restriction, officials disclosed in explaining the higher number. That's because the department's new policy requires a direct connection between where a parolee lives and the offender's crime or potential to reoffend. Only rarely is the assailant a stranger to the victim, the type of offender whose behavior might be affected by where he lives.
"A parole agent cannot simply prevent a parolee from living near a school or park because the offender committed a crime against a child," Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison said in a statement. He said the department reverted to a policy it used before Jessica's Law was passed, which requires that parole restrictions be related to the crime committed.
The decision largely reverses a blanket housing ban imposed by California voters nine years ago. Many states impose a variety of residency restrictions on sex offenders, though states including Iowa, Georgia and Oklahoma rescinded or changed their residency restrictions and some now also tailor restrictions to individual sex offenders.
As a result of California's policy change, more than 4,200 of the state's 5,900 offenders no longer qualify for the residency restrictions, according to data compiled by the corrections department at the AP's request. However, their whereabouts still are monitored with tracking devices and they must tell local law enforcement agencies where they live.
One in five sex offenders who used to be transient have been able to find permanent housing because they are no longer subject to the rule, the department said.
"These numbers are absolutely astounding," said state Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, who co-authored the original ballot initiative. "Kids in kindergarten living across the street from a sex offender is not what the people voted for in Jessica's Law. Seventy percent of the people voted to keep them away from schools and parks."
The department spent months reviewing offenders' criminal backgrounds before deciding that the ban should continue to apply to about 1,400 offenders. The department couldn't provide the status of nearly 300 other offenders.
"That's a pretty dramatic reduction in numbers, so that's scary. That's scary for victims," said Nina Salarno, executive director of Crime Victims United of California.
She and Criminal Justice Legal Foundation president Michael Rushford, who represents crime victims, said the department is broadly interpreting the March court ruling, which applied only to San Diego County. Officials have refused to release the legal advice from the state attorney general that they are relying upon in making the decision.
In the March ruling, justices found that blanket restrictions violate offenders' constitutional rights by making it difficult for them to find housing and other services, without advancing the state's goal of protecting children. One of the San Diego County offenders sued after he was forced to live in a dry riverbed, while two others slept in an alley near the parole office.
Susan Fisher, a board member of the victims support group Citizens against Homicide, said she would have been surprised at the low number of parolees still facing residency restrictions had she not spent so much time as a parole commissioner and as victims' rights adviser to former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Most people think "that around every corner is a child molester," she said. Yet experts say most child molesters are family members or acquaintances of the victim.
Ending the blanket housing restriction tracks recommendations that have been made for years by the Sex Offender Management Board, an advisory panel made up of law enforcement and treatment professionals.
Board vice chairman Tom Tobin said California parole officers who are responsible for enforcing the prohibition are doing a much better job now of tracking sex offenders based on their individual risk.
Tobin, a psychologist who also is on the board of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending, said agents can still apply the housing ban where it makes sense, and the department said it still prohibits many offenders from having contact with minors or loitering near parks, schools or other places where children gather.
Tobin and Fisher said the public is safer with about 260 fewer transient sex offenders who now have been able to find housing since the rule changed.
"If somebody's living under a bridge or going from one house to the next ... we're putting ourselves at greater risk," Fisher said.
Runner disagreed. She intends to try again next year to pass stalled legislation that would let judges in each county decide if the 2,000-foot limit is too restrictive in their jurisdiction.
"Unfortunately, that many people coming from transient to living near schools is not good," Runner said.