Sex offenders struggle to follow Jessica's Law: When transience is the best option

SAN PABLO -- S.T. is a registered sex offender with a wife, three children and a cozy apartment near Hilltop mall. But every night he roams the dark streets in a pea coat, a wool cap and a Global Positioning System tracker strapped to his left ankle.

He would rather stay home. But that could mean running afoul of Jessica's Law -- and a return trip to prison.

So at 10 p.m. he slips on the soft prison shoes he wore out of San Quentin State Prison last month and walks to his favorite bus stop shelter. He sits and chats with the drivers. He circles the mall. Then he treks down near the Richmond BART station to watch the hookers and drug dealers and to lie on a sheet of cardboard plucked from behind a KFC restaurant.

When light breaks, he shakes off the chill and heads home -- but never before 7 a.m., because that is when his parole officer says it is OK, said S.T., who asked to remain anonymous, saying he fears upsetting his parole agent.

"My hands get so cold they turn actually red and get numb," he said on a recent night out. "Mentally and psychologically, I'm fighting."

S.T. lives under a kind of reverse-curfew that owes to the state's enforcement of Proposition 83, the 2006 ballot measure that bans newly released sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park.

He is not alone. State corrections figures show a big increase in parolee sex offenders who, like him, are registering as transient -- homeless or bouncing from bed to bed, doing anything to comply with the 2,000-foot rule.

The surge started in August, when parole agents began to enforce a law that was billed as a way to ease safety fears over children. Yet concern is mounting among state officials, parole agents, victims' advocates and even the law's author, that this is not the way.

Of the 3,952 parolees who now fall under the ban, nearly one in five were registered as transient last week, up from very few before the law, officials said. In the parole region that runs along the coast from Ventura north to the Oregon border and includes the Bay Area, more than a third of the 859 sex offender parolees who fall under Jessica's Law are officially transient.

The situation is most acute in urban areas, where the 2,000-foot rule leaves few places for newly released offenders to live.

Prop. 83, or Jessica's Law, added several get-tough measures against sex offenders. The most controversial is the ban on newly released sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet -- about four-tenths of a mile -- of a school or park where children "regularly gather."

As judges and policymakers sort out the legal and practical implications, what has emerged is a makeshift -- some say slipshod -- system of enforcement.

Parole agents measure off the 2,000 feet "as the crow flies," under state policy. But they have leeway over what it means to live somewhere. For S.T. and others, it is where they spend the night.

The rise in transients is a concern, said Gareth Lacy, spokesman for state Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office keeps the state sex offender registry.

"It's much harder to track and manage offenders who are moving around and not in one location," he said.

Most of the transients are fitted with GPS anklets. They also must report daily to their parole agents, instead of weekly. But the tracking is no cure-all, said Mark McCarthy, a parole agent who oversees sex offenders.

"The big fallacy with GPS is that it's going to curtail crimes. It isn't going to make them not molest kids or rape women. We'll just know if they did it or not," he said. "For public safety purposes, I'd rather know where a guy's at -- at home -- than have him transient, out in the streets somewhere."

A state corrections official denied there is any policy for parole agents to tell people such as S.T. to go transient. Some agents, though, say it is written between the lines of an Aug. 17 memo detailing the agency's policy on the law.

The choices are few in some counties. In San Francisco, where state maps show virtually no compliant housing, 31 of the city's 97 Jessica's Law parolees are now registered transient.

"We had an obligation to make sure parolees knew their options under the law," state corrections spokesman Bill Sessa said. "We weren't directing them. We were simply saying, you either have to find a compliant address or register as transient."

A third option: a parole violation and possible return to prison.

As many as 700 sex offenders are paroled each month. They all fall under the 2,000-foot rule for life unless a court rules otherwise. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule in the spring on a challenge to the restriction.

"The continuing issue is there have to be places for people to live," Sessa said. "The number of sex offenders covered by the law will be constantly expanding."

Transients cannot set up anywhere, Sessa said. They cannot sleep, for instance, under a bridge for several nights if it is too close to a school or park, he said. However, parole agents have discretion.

"There's a common-sense perspective of what it means to live somewhere," he said. "There is a balancing act here, because all the research shows that having a stable environment is the biggest key to rehabilitation, and so agents are always trying to strike a balance." ...

His wife often joins him early on his nightly journey. They hold hands and circle the mall. Then he walks her home, across from a church school.

"This is for me to feel what he's going through," she said as they walk. "He has a place to come to. He has a family. We have children. It is so weird. He just can't be home."

S.T. said that his parole officer told him: "Wherever you go, just keep it moving." That usually is what he does, if only to keep warm.

"I'm really -- how would you say? -- traumatized," he said. "Being in the cold, being tired, walking in the rain. ... What if I have to use the bathroom? It is very degrading."

The author of Jessica's Law now says that the state is misguided in its early enforcement of the law and that policymakers need to be more "creative."

Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, described S.T.'s case as "a very tortured interpretation, obviously. Somebody in corrections has decided it was easier to go let somebody be transient than to insist that they follow the law."

Still, Runner said that he never meant the law for people such as S.T. who fall under Jessica's Law only because of nonsex convictions. That borders on being retroactive, he said. [Ed: What disingenuous nonsense! Apparently, Runner feels that he can write any piece of crap law and those obligated to enforce it are supposed to know (and have the authority to CHOOSE) which elements to enforce and when and with whom. In other words, they are supposed to realize that they are to enforce it capriciously! George Runner and his Legislator wife should be chased out of office and, what the hell, maybe their home, too!]

He also disagrees with how the state strictly measures 2,000 feet, when in some cases freeways split a home from a school or park. He said he thinks cities can better define parks. Should all of Golden Gate Park count, or only areas that children frequent?

"We're always concerned if there are issues that make something impossible to implement," he said. "We believe there's a big difference between impossible and hard. The bottom line is it's going to work."

Critics blame Runner for writing a vaguely worded law that was ripe for trouble. Corrections officials say they merely are enforcing the letter of a law that 70 percent of voters passed.

The California Sex Offender Management Board, formed under Jessica's Law, is studying the fallout and possible repairs, including the idea of "cluster housing" for sex offenders

"It's really about keeping sex offenders from living in a place where they have easy access to children," said Nancy O'Malley, chief assistant district attorney in Alameda County.

She could not grasp the purpose of S.T. wandering the streets at night.

"That's not good," she said. "What does that do?" Full Story

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or

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