'Stranger Danger' and the Decline of Halloween

Wall Street Journal

No child has ever been killed by poisoned candy. Ever.

Halloween is the day when America market-tests parental paranoia. If a new fear flies on Halloween, it's probably going to catch on the rest of the year, too.

Take "stranger danger," the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the "Bewitched" and "Brady Bunch" costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger's Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

This Halloween, costumes based on "Jersey Shore" stars Snooki, DJ Pauly D and The Situation are flying off the shelves. WSJ's Elizabeth Holmes reports.

Anyway, you'd think that word would get out: poisoned candy not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won't be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection. As if being full has ever stopped any kid from eating free candy!

So stranger danger is still going strong, and it's even spread beyond Halloween to the rest of the year. Now parents consider their neighbors potential killers all year round. That's why they don't let their kids play on the lawn, or wait alone for the school bus: "You never know!" The psycho-next-door fear went viral.

Then along came new fears. Parents are warned annually not to let their children wear costumes that are too tight—those could seriously restrict breathing! But not too loose either—kids could trip! Fall! Die!

Treating parents like idiots who couldn't possibly notice that their kid is turning blue or falling on his face might seem like a losing proposition, but it caught on too.

Halloween taught marketers that parents are willing to be warned about anything, no matter how preposterous, and then they're willing to be sold whatever solutions the market can come up with. Face paint so no mask will obscure a child's vision. Purell, so no child touches a germ. And the biggest boondoggle of all: an adult-supervised party, so no child encounters anything exciting, er, "dangerous."

Think of how Halloween used to be the one day of the year when gaggles of kids took to the streets by themselves—at night even. Big fun! Low cost! But once the party moved inside, to keep kids safe from the nonexistent poisoners, in came all the nonsense. The battery-operated caskets. The hired witch. The Costco veggie trays and plastic everything else. Halloween went from hobo holiday to $6 billion extravaganza.

And it blazed the way for adult-supervised everything else. Let kids make their own fun? Not anymore! Let's sign our toddlers up for "movement" classes! Let's bring on the extracurricular activities, travel soccer and manicure parties for the older kids. Once Halloween got outsourced to adults, no kids-only activity was safe. Goodbye sandlot, hello batting coach!

And now comes the latest Halloween terror: Across the country, cities and states are passing waves of laws preventing registered sex offenders from leaving their homes—or sometimes even turning on their lights—on Halloween.

The reason? Same old same old: safety. As a panel of "experts" on the "Today" show warned viewers recently: Don't let your children trick-or-treat without you "any earlier than [age] 13, because people put on masks, they put on disguises, and there are still people who do bad things."

Perhaps there are. But Elizabeth Letourneau, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, studied crime statistics from 30 states and found, "There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation."

In fact, she says, "We almost called this paper, 'Halloween: The Safest Day of the Year,' because it was just so incredibly rare to see anything happen on that day."

Why is it so safe? Because despite our mounting fears and apoplectic media, it is still the day that many of us, of all ages, go outside. We knock on doors. We meet each other. And all that giving and taking and trick-or-treating is building the very thing that keeps us safe: community.

We can kill off Halloween, or we can accept that it isn't dangerous and give it back to the kids. Then maybe we can start giving them back the rest of their childhoods, too.

Ms. Skenazy is the author of "Free-Range Kids" (Jossey-Bass, 2010). She blogs at www.freerangekids.com.

'Vulnerable' man lured to death with offer of sex act

Ed: Here is another example of deeply evil people attaining release for their sadistic pleasures by targeting those who are both vulnerable and unpopular in the eyes of society.

The cultural narrative has been, of course, that these poor people (the murderers) had doubtless been the victims of childhood sexual abuse themselves and that, while regrettable, it's understandable why these things happen. Thus the inevitable psychologist's reports to the court claiming "early childhood victimization". This will soften the legal blows that fall upon them and further reinforce the myth that sadists who kill sex offenders (or, in this case, suspected "nonces") are motivated not by their own sociopathy or sadism but out of a deep "wound" resulting from some sex act experienced in childhood. It is time to put this mythical narrative, recognized as such by countless reputable mental health professionals, to rest!

Mr Rossington's body was found on grassland in Lincoln
A 21-year-old man described as "vulnerable and gullible" was beaten to death by a gang who considered him a paedophile, a court has heard.

Shaun Rossington, of Lincoln, was lured to Searby Road in the city by a 13-year-old girl on the promise of a sex act, Nottingham Crown Court heard.

His body was found face down on grassland on 3 June. He died from lack of oxygen, the court heard.

Continue reading the main story
Related stories

'Vulnerable' man lured to attack
Two men, two girls and three boys deny murder.

'Kicking hard'
The jury was told the seven defendants lured Mr Rossington, beat him and then hatched a plan to cover up their involvement.

The seven include Nicholas Shelbourne, 27, of Edinburgh House, Laughton Way, Lincoln; Mark Jackson, 20, of Yarborough Road, Lincoln, two girls aged 17 and 14 and three boys - two aged 17 and another aged 16.

Prosecutor Richard Latham told the jury one of the 17-year-old boys had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and perverting the course of the justice, while the other 17-year-old boy admitted perverting the course of justice.

Nottingham Crown Court heard the gang originally told police they had stumbled across Mr Rossington's body, claiming he was a stranger.

Mr Latham said when police investigated they found Facebook conversations between the 13-year-old girl and Mr Rossington less than two hours before it is believed he was killed.

Pizza order
The court heard the 13-year-old girl told police the other girl in the group texted Mr Rossington pretending to be her and offering to perform a sex act on him for £100.

The girl told police she had no intention of performing the sex act, but planned to "get the £100 and run".

Mr Latham said at the end of the attack, all seven defendants must have known the 21-year-old was seriously hurt, but did not call for help.

The court heard the group all gave slightly different accounts of events that night, claiming they only left the flat to order a pizza, which prosecutors said was a lie.

The trial continues.

Judge Weinstein Takes On Child Pornography Laws

New York Times

In his 43-year career as a federal judge, Jack B. Weinstein has come to be identified by his efforts to combat what he calls “the unnecessary cruelty of the law.” His most recent crusade is particularly striking because of the beneficiary: a man who has amassed a vast collection of child pornography.

Judge Weinstein, who sits in the United States District Court in Brooklyn, has twice thrown out convictions that would have ensured that the man spend at least five years behind bars. He has pledged to break protocol and inform the next jury about the mandatory prison sentence that the charges carry. And he recently declared that the man, who is awaiting a new trial, did not need an electronic ankle bracelet because he posed “no risk to society.”

There is little public sympathy for collectors of child pornography. Yet across the country, an increasing number of federal judges have come to their defense, criticizing changes to sentencing laws that have effectively quadrupled their average prison term over the last decade.

Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a 20-year child pornography sentence by ruling that the sentencing guidelines for such cases, “unless applied with great care, can lead to unreasonable sentences.” The decision noted that the recommended sentences for looking at pictures of children being sexually abused sometimes eclipse those for actually sexually abusing a child.

Judge Weinstein has gone to extraordinary lengths to challenge the strict punishments, issuing a series of rulings that directly attack the mandatory five-year prison sentence faced by defendants charged with receiving child pornography.

“I don’t approve of child pornography, obviously,” he said in an interview this week. But, he also said, he does not believe that those who view the images, as opposed to producing or selling them, present a threat to children.

“We’re destroying lives unnecessarily,” he said. “At the most, they should be receiving treatment and supervision.”

The man he has spent three years trying to save from a long incarceration is Pietro Polizzi, a married father of five who collected more than 5,000 graphic pictures of children. If prosecuted in a New York State court, he would have faced a maximum prison sentence of four years. Instead, in federal court, he faced a minimum of five years and a recommended sentence of 11 to 14 years. Because of Judge Weinstein’s intervention, he remains free as he awaits another trial.

“I don’t see Judge Weinstein as a judge,” Mr. Polizzi said during an interview as tears rolled down his face. “I see him as my father. He helps people. He doesn’t destroy lives the way the prosecutor has. He’s the one who is going to set me free from the court.”

The child pornography industry has flourished through the Internet, with the number of federal cases growing from fewer than 100 annually to more than 1,600 last year. As the number grew, Congress increased the recommended prison terms and established a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for anyone convicted of receiving child pornography. According to the federal defenders office, the average sentence was 91 months in 2007, up from 21 months a decade before.

But the tough penalties have chafed at many judges, echoing previous battles over drug cases. Last year, judges imposed sentences below the recommended range in more than half of all child pornography cases.

“What has caused concern in courts across the nation is that we have a lot of relatively law-abiding individuals sitting in the basement downloading the wrong kind of dirty pictures facing not just prison sentences but incredibly long prison sentences,” said Douglas A. Berman, a professor at Moritz College of Law, who studies sentencing issues.

In one recent case, James L. Graham, a United States District Court judge in Ohio, sentenced a 67-year-old man who had suffered a stroke to a single day in prison, along with restrictions on computer use and registration as a sex offender. As part of a deal with prosecutors, the man had pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography, which carries no mandatory sentence.

“When you have to sit there on the bench and look at someone like my stroke victim and say, ‘I have to send this man to prison for six years,’ it just doesn’t feel right,” he explained in an interview. “It’s not right.”

Child advocates like Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, are upset by such thinking. “Real children are harmed in the production of these images,” he said, “and these same children are harmed every time these images are downloaded and viewed.”

At 88, Judge Weinstein is one of the longest serving members of the federal bench. Supporters praise his taking unusual actions in pursuit of his notions of justice, like for a time refusing to handle drug cases out of opposition to mandatory minimums. Critics say that in the process, he disregards the law.

(On Thursday, he made headlines by refusing to dismiss a lawsuit by a public school teacher removed from the classroom for allowing students to use vulgarities during a lesson on H.I.V. He ruled that she appeared to have followed the spirit of a state syllabus that directed that students be encouraged to use sexual terms they understood.)

“Jack is somebody who will step out and do what he thinks is right and take his chances of being overturned by an appeals court,” said John S. Martin, who cited his disagreement with mandatory sentences when he retired from the federal bench in Manhattan. “He sees the injustice in these things and he tries to do something about it.”

Both sides point to his efforts in the Polizzi case as quintessential Weinstein.

In 2005, Mr. Polizzi signed up for a child pornography Web site. He began obsessively stockpiling thousands of images, mostly of prepubescent girls. When F.B.I. agents arrived with a search warrant, he led them to the two-story garage where he kept his collection behind locked doors, saying, “The pictures of the children are upstairs.”

Child pornography cases almost always end with guilty pleas. But when the case was assigned to Judge Weinstein, Mr. Polizzi’s lawyer recommended that he go to trial.

The lawyer used an insanity defense, claiming Mr. Polizzi had been repeatedly raped as a child and had collected the pictures not for sexual gratification, but in hopes of finding evidence of his own abuse — claims the prosecution dismissed as implausible. When the first of the images were shown in court, Mr. Polizzi collapsed and was taken to a hospital.

The jury was given the standard instruction not to consider possible punishment during deliberations. After three days, on Oct. 5, 2007, Mr. Polizzi was convicted of all 12 counts of receipt of child pornography and 11 counts of possession. Then Judge Weinstein broke from the script with a question almost never posed in court: If the jurors had known about the minimum prison sentence, would they have voted to convict?

Five jurors spoke up against imprisonment. Two said they would have changed their votes. Judge Weinstein tossed out the guilty verdict on the more serious receipt counts and ordered a new trial. He sentenced Mr. Polizzi to a year in prison for the possession counts, which Mr. Polizzi has served.

Judge Weinstein declared that Mr. Polizzi had a constitutional right to have a jury know the punishment that would accompany a guilty verdict, a right he said he had violated. He pledged to inform the next jury of the mandatory minimum sentence. That idea, floated by a federal judge in Manhattan several years earlier in another child pornography case but rejected on appeal, would give jurors the option of refusing to convict if the punishment seemed disproportionate, as several jurors had indicated they believed it was in Mr. Polizzi’s case.

“That was quite an unusual way of handling it,” said Amy Baron-Evans, the national sentencing resource counsel for the federal public defenders’ office. “Usually the judges are just stuck with the mandatory minimum.”

The Court of Appeals last year overruled Judge Weinstein’s order of a new trial, but left unresolved whether it was permissible to tell the jury about the punishment. The case was remanded, and Judge Weinstein, after consulting with other District Court judges, again ordered a new trial, though this time on different grounds. And again he pledged to inform the jury of the mandatory minimum sentences. That decision is under appeal.

In the meantime, the cases keep coming.

On Wednesday, Judge Weinstein dealt with a man who had pleaded guilty to receipt of child pornography. He imposed the mandatory five-year minimum prison term, though unhappily.

“This is an unnecessarily harsh and cruel sentence under the circumstances,” he said. “The court has no alternative under the statute. This defendant requires treatment and a stable life outside of prison. Prison will only harm him and will do nothing to protect society, since he does not constitute a risk of crime or any acting out towards children.”

“I’m sorry,” he added, “there is nothing I can do in this case.”

Worst-Case Thinking

"Our society no longer has the ability to calculate probabilities. Risk assessment is devalued. "

by Bruce Schneier

At a security conference recently, the moderator asked the panel of distinguished cybersecurity leaders what their nightmare scenario was. The answers were the predictable array of large-scale attacks: against our communications infrastructure, against the power grid, against the financial system, in combination with a physical attack.

I didn't get to give my answer until the afternoon, which was: "My nightmare scenario is that people keep talking about their nightmare scenarios."

There's a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the precautionary principle, it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability and magnifies social paralysis. And it makes us more vulnerable to the effects of terrorism.

Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it's only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

Second, it's based on flawed logic. It begs the question by assuming that a proponent of an action must prove that the nightmare scenario is impossible.

Third, it can be used to support any position or its opposite. If we build a nuclear power plant, it could melt down. If we don't build it, we will run short of power and society will collapse into anarchy. If we allow flights near Iceland's volcanic ash, planes will crash and people will die. If we don't, organs won't arrive in time for transplant operations and people will die. If we don't invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein might use the nuclear weapons he might have. If we do, we might destabilize the Middle East, leading to widespread violence and death.

Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planet is bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.

Fourth and finally, worst-case thinking validates ignorance. Instead of focusing on what we know, it focuses on what we don't know -- and what we can imagine.

Remember Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's quote? "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know." And this: "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Ignorance isn't a cause for doubt; when you can fill that ignorance with imagination, it can be a call to action.

Even worse, it can lead to hasty and dangerous acts. You can't wait for a smoking gun, so you act as if the gun is about to go off. Rather than making us safer, worst-case thinking has the potential to cause dangerous escalation.

The new undercurrent in this is that our society no longer has the ability to calculate probabilities. Risk assessment is devalued. Probabilistic thinking is repudiated in favor of "possibilistic thinking": Since we can't know what's likely to go wrong, let's speculate about what can possibly go wrong.

Worst-case thinking leads to bad decisions, bad systems design, and bad security. And we all have direct experience with its effects: airline security and the TSA, which we make fun of when we're not appalled that they're harassing 93-year-old women or keeping first graders off airplanes. You can't be too careful!

Actually, you can. You can refuse to fly because of the possibility of plane crashes. You can lock your children in the house because of the possibility of child predators. You can eschew all contact with people because of the possibility of hurt. Steven Hawking wants to avoid trying to communicate with aliens because they might be hostile; does he want to turn off all the planet's television broadcasts because they're radiating into space? It isn't hard to parody worst-case thinking, and at its extreme it's a psychological condition.

Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at the University of Kent, writes: "Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as one of the dominant principles around which the public, the government and institutions should organize their life. It institutionalizes insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularizing the belief that worst cases are normal, it incites people to feel defenseless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats."

Even worse, it plays directly into the hands of terrorists, creating a population that is easily terrorized -- even by failed terrorist attacks like the Christmas Day underwear bomber and the Times Square SUV bomber.

When someone is proposing a change, the onus should be on them to justify it over the status quo. But worst case thinking is a way of looking at the world that exaggerates the rare and unusual and gives the rare much more credence than it deserves.

It isn't really a principle; it's a cheap trick to justify what you already believe. It lets lazy or biased people make what seem to be cogent arguments without understanding the whole issue. And when people don't need to refute counterarguments, there's no point in listening to them.

This essay was originally published on CNN.com, although they stripped out all the links.


Security conference:

Precautionary principle:

Iceland volcano affects organ donations:

Areas where we tend to overestimate the threat:

New particle accelerator may annihilate the planet:

Movie plot threats:

Rumsfeld quote:
Possibilistic thinking:

Making fun of the TSA:
The TSA harasses a 93-year-old women:

The TSA keeps a first-grader off airplanes:
Steven Hawking on communicating with aliens:

Frank Furedi on worst-case-thinking:

How we are easily terrorized:

Christmas Day underwear bomber:

Times Square SUV bomber:

Nazis Started Pedophile Priest Panic In 1937

"There are cases of sexual abuse that are coming to light every day against a great number of the members of the Catholic clergy. Unfortunately, we are perhaps not talking so much about individual cases but rather a collective moral crisis that the cultural history of humanity may never have known at such a frightful and concerning level. Numerous priests and religious have confessed to the crime. There is no doubt that the thousands of cases that have come to be known to the authorities represent only a small fraction of the true number, since many molesters have been covered and hidden by the hierarchy." - Joseph Goebbels, 1937

Although the above quote could have appeared in any number of editorials in recent weeks, the statement was made by Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in 1937, according to Italian journalist Massimo Introvigne.

In an article published recently for Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Catholic bishops' conference, Introvigne says that Goebbels launched a fierce smear campaign against the Catholic Church following its condemnation of the Nazi regime that same year, attempting to convince the public that the Catholic priesthood was filled with child sex abusers.

Introvigne says that Goebbels' campaign followed the same pattern seen in recent media attacks on the Church. Although it was based on a few real cases that had come to light in 1936, and far fewer that the number of cases currently being discussed from mostly the 1960s and 70s, it exaggerated their extent and attempted to revive them after they had already been resolved, in an attempt to discredit Catholics.

"The cases, which were few, but real, produced a very strong reaction from the episcopate," writes Introvigne. "On June 2, 1936, the Bishop of Münster - Blessed Clemens August von Galen (1878-1946), who was the soul of Catholic resistance to Nazism, and who was beatified in 2005 by Benedict XVI - had a declaration read at all the Sunday Masses in which he expressed 'pain and sadness' for these 'abominable crimes' that "cover our Holy Church with ignominy.'"

The German episcopate soon after published a condemnation of the perpetrators, and implemented what Introvigne called "severe measures" to prevent future crimes. The bishops privately pointed out that the Hitler Youth and the schools had a far bigger problem with child sex abuse.

However, in March of 1937, the Nazis growing conflict with the Catholic Church came to a head, with the publication of the papal letter "Mit Brennender Sorge" (With Burning Concern), which was smuggled into the Riech and read from the pulpit of every Catholic parish. In it, Pope Pius XI condemned both the behavior and the philosophy of the Nazis in unequivocal terms, and defended the Church's Jewish heritage against Hitler's racist attacks.

Goebbels responded by reviving the charges of sex abuse against Catholic priests, and created new ones, according to Introvigne, who writes that "It was the anti-Nazi encyclical of Pius XI that led to the great campaign of 1937. [German Jesuit priest Walter] Mariaux proved it publishing highly detailed instructions sent by Goebbels to the Gestapo, the political police of the Third Reich, and above all to journalists, just a few days after the publication of Mit Brennender Sorge, inviting them to 'reopen' the cases from 1936 and also older cases, constantly recalling them to public opinion."

"Goebbels also ordered the Gestapo to find witnesses willing to accuse a certain number of priests, threatening them with immediate arrest if they didn't collaborate, even if they were children," he adds.

However, Introvigne writes that Fr. Mariaux published the confidential documents he had discovered in a two volume work in Spanish and English, which detailed the Nazis' attack on the Catholic Church, thus discrediting it.

"Thanks to the courage of Canaris and his friends, and to the persistence of the Jesuit detective Mariaux, the truth was already out during the war," notes Introvigne.

"The wickedness of the campaign of Goebbels aroused more indignation than the eventual guilt of some religious. The father of all moral panics in the area of pedophile priests blew up in the hands of the Nazi propagandists who had tried to organize it."

Related Links

Goebbels and the pedophile priests operation (English version)

Michelangelo and the Hand of God: Scandal at the Vatican

by Fr. Gordon J. MacRae on March 24, 2010

“Calendar with frontal nudity – Not Allowed.” I received that notice from the prison mail room several years ago instructing me that I had two choices: have the pornographic contraband destroyed or sent out. I had no idea what it was, but the sender was my younger brother, Scott (see “Take a Hike!”). I was furious with Scott. I thought his judgment had fallen off a cliff somewhere and he tried to send me a Playboy calendar – or worse. “He should know better!” I thought. “What on earth would make him think I would want a nude calendar?”

The next day I received a letter from Scott: “I hope you like the calendar!” he wrote. That confirmed it! My brother had gone mad! When I finally reached him by telephone, he told me that the calendar was entitled “Vatican City: Scenes from the Sistine Chapel.”

Calif. bills target sex offenders online

Editor: This is entirely about demagogues like George Runner exacting more revenge against sex offenders. To make their lives impossible into perpetuity is his sole aim. To marginalize sex offenders who have already served their sentences to the point of social slavery is what makes Senator George Runner tick. And, despite the fact that he is a Christian fundamentalist with a deep and abiding hatred for sexual freedom in general, he will, no doubt, receive lots of support across the political and theological spectrum for his continued expansion of governmental intrusion into every nook and cranny of everyone's - not just sex offender's - lives.

That the law is hardly enforceable on first reading is also not the point. The point of this law will be to criminalize acts committed by registered sex offenders that would never be criminal if exercised as a right by anyone else. By so doing, it further instills terror in people who, despite not committing new crimes and attempting to put their lives back together and contribute to society, must break absurd laws such as the one he is proposing in order to work and function in that very society, knowing that at any time they come under scrutiny by the police (a constant threat for the R.S.O.) their "crime" of not registering an email address will land them back in prison.

When are we going to stop taking the lead from the zealots amongst us, whether they are the most extreme sex-hating gender feminists or the religious sex-hating fanatics? The common denominator between them is authoritarianism and a contempt for the individual and, of course, a hatred of other people's sex lives.
By dominating our national conversation, we allow them to set an agenda for all of us. When would you ever wish to have these people dictate your personal lives and priorities, demanding each and every email address you use?

Sex offenders would be required to share Internet identifiers.

Posted at 10:55 PM on Friday, Apr. 02, 2010

SACRAMENTO -- New York passed a law a couple of years ago requiring sex offenders to report e-mail addresses to the state's offender registry.

The result: At least 4,336 registered sex offenders were purged from social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace thanks to the new data, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo recently announced.

Several California lawmakers want to follow New York's lead.

Newly introduced bills would require sex offenders to share online identifiers -- such as e-mail accounts and instant-message aliases -- while at the same time prohibiting offenders on parole from using social networking sites.

"These social networks become a real trolling place for predators," said Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, author of one of the bills. "I think we should create as many speed bumps as possible to keep them off those social networks."

But the bills are far from foolproof. Supporters concede that offenders could switch e-mail addresses and not tell the authorities. But if they are caught, they run the risk of going back to prison -- and "that's a pretty big risk," Runner said.

In Fresno, an estimated 10% to 15% of sexual assault cases involve victims who were first contacted online, according to the Fresno Police Department. About 1,600 sex offenders live in Fresno.

Lt. David Newton, head of Fresno's criminal investigations bureau, supports the bills, but said they aren't ironclad. "We don't necessarily believe this may prevent many sexual assaults from occurring," he said. But "this is going to provide another arrow in our quiver."

He said the ban on social sites use by offenders will allow investigators to levy additional charges against predators.

Opponents fear the bills would lead to overzealous prosecutions and needlessly send more people to already crowded prisons.

Sex offenders already must register for life, including those who commit less-serious crimes such as indecent exposure, said Ignacio Hernandez, a lobbyist for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which represents criminal defense lawyers.

"All this would do is prohibit people from using these social networking sites for lawful, positive, productive purposes -- and that really makes no sense," he said.

A similar bill failed last legislative session, as concerns arose about the costs of collecting the new information and imprisoning offenders who violate the new rules.

A report last year suggests children face no greater danger online than they do in real life. Rather, the biggest risks on the Web are harassment and bullying among children -- not adults targeting kids, said a report by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, created by 49 state attorneys to study the threats children face online.

"The image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture of the nature of the majority of sexual solicitations and Internet-initiated off-line encounters," reported the task force, which included academics and representatives of Internet businesses and nonprofits.

However, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who helped create the task force, criticized the report, saying it relied on inadequate research and downplayed the threat of online predators.

Current law requires sexual offenders to register their home addresses with local authorities every time they move. Under the bills, new e-mail accounts would have to be registered days after they are created.

The bills are SB 1204 by Runner, AB 1850 by Assembly Member Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, and AB 2208 by Assembly Member Norma Torres, D-Pomona.

The registry information is sent to the state and portions are displayed publicly at the Megan's Law Web site. Social networking sites such as Facebook already run checks against offender information. Having e-mail addresses would improve the process, said Chris Kelly, a state attorney general candidate and the former privacy officer and head of global public policy for Facebook.

Kelly, a Democrat, said Facebook already has strong protections in place, including a "real name culture" that weeds out users employing fake monikers. The site also flags suspicious users whose friend requests are rejected at a high rate or who overuse the search function.

"None of these systems are foolproof, but they go far beyond what most people assume has gone on," he said.

The state legislation comes after Congress in 2006 passed a law, known as the Adam Walsh Act, setting minimum standards for sex offender registries, including collecting Internet identifiers. States that don't comply by July 2011 risk losing some federal grants -- about $3 million in California.

California's Sex Offender Management Board has recommended the state not implement the federal law, partly because the costs of making the changes would exceed the grant loss.

The reporter can be reached at eschultz@fresnobee.com or (916) 326-5541.

Why humanists shouldn’t join in this Catholic-bashing

"The reaction to the paedophile priest scandal is as guilty of scaremongering, illiberalism and elitism as the Catholic Church has ever been."
Brendan O’Neill

With all the newspaper headlines about predatory paedophiles in smocks, terrified altar boys and cover-ups by officials at the Vatican, it is hard to think of anything worse right now than a sexually abusive priest. Yet today’s reaction to those allegations of sexual abuse is also deeply problematic. For it is a reaction informed more by prejudice and illiberalism than by anything resembling a principled secularism, and one which also threatens to harm individuals, families, society and liberty.

When considering the problem of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, it is important to distinguish between the incidents themselves, some of which were of course horrific, and the way in which those incidents are understood in today’s political and cultural climate. The acts of sexual abuse themselves were no doubt a product of various problematic factors: the Catholic Church’s culture of celibacy, its strange views on sex, the fact that in some institutions priests were given ultimate authority over young boys and girls. But the way in which those acts are understood today – as supremely damaging to individuals and the inevitable consequence of people ‘deciding it is a good thing to abandon any commitment to fact and instead act on faith’ – is powerfully informed by two problematic contemporary trends: the backward cult of victimhood and the dominant ‘new atheist’ prejudice against any institution with strong beliefs.

With all the current claims about Pope Benedict XVI himself being involved in a cover-up of child abuse by an American priest and a German priest, and newspaper reports using terms like ‘stuff of nightmares’, the ‘stench of evil’, and ‘systematic rape and torture’, anyone who tries to inject a bit of perspective into this debate is unlikely to be thanked. But perspective is what we need. Someone has to point out that for all the problems with the Catholic Church’s doctrines and style of organisation – and I experienced some of those problems, having been raised a Catholic before becoming an atheist at 17 – the fact is that sexual abuse by priests is a relatively rare phenomenon.

Even in Ireland, whose image as a craic-loving nation has been replaced by the far-worse idea that it was actually a nation of priest rape, incidents of sexual abuse by priests were fairly rare. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which was launched by the Irish government in 1999 and delivered its report last year, intensively invited Irish-born people around the world to report on incidents of abuse in Irish religious-educational reform schools, where the majority of clerical abuse is said to have occurred, between the period 1914 to 1999. For that 85-year period, 253 claims of sexual abuse were made by males and 128 by females. It is important – surely? – to note that these are claims of sexual abuse rather than proven incidents, since the vast majority of them did not go to trial.

The number of sexual abuse claims in these institutions fell for the more recent period: for males, there were 88 claims from the pre-1960s, 119 from 1960 to 1969, 37 from 1970 to 1979, and nine from 1980 to 1989. The alleged sexual-abuse incidents ranged in seriousness from boys being ‘questioned and interrogated about their sexual activity’ to being raped: there were 68 claims of anal rape in reform institutions for boys from 1914 to 1999. Not all of the sexual abuse was carried out by priests. Around 65 per cent of the claims pertain to religious workers, and 35 per cent to lay staff, care workers, and fellow pupils.

Of course, one incident of child sexual abuse by a priest is one too many. But given the findings of Ireland’s investigation into abuse in religious-educational institutions, is there really a justification for talking about a ‘clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel’? As Ireland is redefined as a country in recovery from child sexual abuse, and the ‘scandal of child rape’ spreads further through Europe into Germany and Italy, it might be unfashionable to say the following but it is true nonetheless: very, very small numbers of children in the care or teaching of the Catholic Church in Europe in recent decades were sexually abused, but very, very many of them actually received a decent standard of education.

The discussion of a relatively rare phenomenon as a ‘great evil’ of our age shows that child abuse in Catholic churches has been turned into a morality tale – about the dangers of belief and of hierarchical institutions and the need for more state and other forms of intervention into religious institutions and even religious families. The first contemporary trend that has turned incidences of sexual abuse into a powerful symbol of evil is the cult of the victim, where today individuals are invited not only to reveal every misfortune that has befallen them – which of course is a sensible thing to do if you have been raped – but also to define themselves by those misfortunes, to look upon themselves as the end-products of having being emotionally, physically or sexually abused. This is why very public revelations of Catholic abuse started in America and Ireland before more recently spreading to other parts of Western Europe: because the politics of victimhood, the cult of revelation and redefinition of the self as survivor, is more pronounced and developed in America and Ireland than it is in continental Europe.

In Ireland, for example, the state has explicitly invited its citizens to redefine themselves as victims of authority rather than as active agents capable of moving on and making choices. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse discusses at length the ‘debilitating’ impact that abuse can have on individuals, to the extent that many of Ireland’s social problems – including unemployment, poverty, drug abuse and heavy drinking – are now discussed as the products of Ireland’s earlier era of abuse rather than as failings of the contemporary social system.

This, I believe, is why claims of sexual abuse in Ireland’s religious-educational institutions were so much higher for the period of 1960 to 1969 (nearly half of all claims of sexual abuse against boys during the period of 1914 to 1989 were made for that decade). It is not because priests suddenly became more abusive in the 1960s than they had been in the far harsher Ireland of the 1940s and 50s, but because the people who attended the institutions during that period were in many ways the main targets of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. They would have been in their mid-40s to mid-50s when the commission began in 1999 and many of them had suffered long-term unemployment, health problems, and other disappointments. Reporting their misfortunes to the commission offered them the chance, not only of getting financial compensation, but also of validating their difficult life experiences as a consequence of their having been abused. In a grotesquely convenient marriage, the state redefined social problems as consequences of Catholic abuse and the individual redefined himself as a sufferer from low self-esteem who did not bear full responsibility for the course of his adult life. In such a climate, not only are incidents of abuse by priests more likely to surface, but they are also more likely to be heavily politicised, turned from undoubtedly distressing and possibly criminal acts into modern-day examples of evil capable of distorting society itself. Thus did the contemporary cult of victimhood ensure that Catholic abuse was blown out of proportion.

The second contemporary trend that has elevated something quite rare into a social disaster is the rise of the ‘new atheism’. Now the dominant liberal outlook of our age – in particular in the media outlets that have most keenly focused on the Catholic abuse scandals: the New York Times, the Irish Times, and the UK Guardian – the new atheism differs from the atheism of earlier free-thinking humanists in that its main aim is not to enlighten, but to scaremonger about the impact of religion on society. For these thinkers and opinion-formers, the drip-drip of revelations of abuse in Catholic institutions offers an opportunity to demonise the religious as backward and people who possess strong beliefs as suspect.

Many contemporary opinion-formers are not concerned with getting to the truth of how widespread Catholic sexual abuse was, or what were the specific circumstances in which it occurred; rather they want to milk incidents of abuse and make them into an indictment of religion itself. They frequently flit between discussing priests who abuse children and the profound stupidity of people who believe in God. One commentator wildly refers to the Vatican’s ‘international criminal conspiracy to protect child-rapists’ and says most ordinary Catholics turn a blind eye to this because ‘people behave in bizarre ways when they decide it is a good thing to abandon any commitment to fact and instead act on faith’.

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, unwittingly reveals what draws the new atheists towards the Catholic-abuse story: their belief that religion is itself a form of abuse. ‘Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place’, he argues. He admits that physical abuse by priests is rare, but only to flag up what he sees as a more serious form of abuse: ‘Only a minority of priests abuse the bodies of the children in their care. But how many priests abuse their minds?’ In this spectacularly crude critique of religion, no moral distinction is made between being educated by a priest and raped by one – indeed, the former is considered worse than the latter, since as one Observer columnist recently darkly warned: ‘We have no idea what children are being taught in those classrooms…’

If ‘bringing a child up Catholic’ is itself abuse, there can only be one solution: external authorities must protect children not only from religious institutions but from their own religious parents, too. One new atheist has proposed an age of consent for joining a religion: 14. In an Oxford Amnesty Lecture popular amongst new atheists, a liberal academic argued that children ‘have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas’, and parents ‘have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose’. Here, a simplistic leap is made from protecting children from paedophile priests to protecting them from their own parents, since in the new-atheist view strong beliefs and freedom of religion – which, yes, includes the freedom of parents to bring up their children as they see fit – are the real problem. They exaggerate the extent of Catholic sexual abuse in order to strengthen their prejudicial arguments.

Whatever you think of the Catholic Church, you should be concerned about today’s abuse-obsession. Events of the (sometimes distant) past which nobody can change are being used to justify dangerous trends in the present. A new kind of society is being solidified on the back of exposing abusive priests, one in which scaremongering supersedes facts, where people redefine themselves as permanently damaged victims, where freedom of thought is problematised, and where parents are considered suspect for not adhering to the superior values of the atheistic elite. Seriously, radical humanists should fight back against this.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Ed: I would like to point out that, amongst the "Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett) Dawkins (and perhaps Dennett) has exercised great restraint in not equating pedophilia with religious clericalism unlike Hitchens and Harris who have practically presented the priest scandals as "Exhibit A" in their arguments against religion.

In "The God Delusion" he questioned the prevailing sacrosanct belief which holds that great trauma is necessarily visited upon any child or adolescent who experiences sexual contact with an adult. He has questioned society's preoccupation with the subject and suggested that it is a form of hysteria.

I give tremendous credit to him for that since it has become extraordinarily easy to join the legions of torch-carrying hysterics in condemning the Catholic Church. His position also requires a great deal of courage in this day.

I also think that he has some very good points about the forced inculcation of religion into children. I'm not sure, however, that he has advocated a governmental or legal response to these perceived "abuses". I would hope not as I think that would be a real travesty.

I agree with you, however, that the atheist movement would be making a grievous error in actively vilifying beliefs and cultures and using the abuse scandals as a facile means to do so.

And I am chagrined when anyone, including Catholic priests, are caught in the maelstrom of the witch hunt in which we find ourselves today.

Like Dawkins, I do believe that religion can be destructive and anachronistic in many ways which are harmful. But expressing this as a matter of opinion is quite different from enforcing it as public policy. This, I believe, would be manifestly evil.

-David Kennerly

More mentally ill sex offenders freed on parole

Lawmakers seek audit of mental health agency

The system that decides whether mentally ill sex offenders are too dangerous to be freed when their prison terms end has seen a tenfold increase in cases since the passage of Jessica’s Law in California three years ago.

But the number of inmates who get committed to an institution has barely budged, according to an analysis of state data by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

One reason is the volume of prison referrals rejected by the California Department of Mental Health. In 2005, the agency approved 45 percent of cases on initial review. That number has fallen steadily, to 17 percent last year.

That trend is one of the reasons a state lawmaker on Tuesday asked for an audit of the government agency responsible for screening offenders.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, said he wants the state Department of Mental Health to explain why so few inmates are ordered into hospitals instead of being released on parole.

“I’ve got serious concerns that (the department) is not fully executing its duty to protect the public from sex offenders,” Fletcher said in a letter sent yesterday to Stephen Mayberg, state mental health director.

Fletcher’s inquiry follows a report in the Union-Tribune on Sunday detailing allegations from child-safety advocate Marc Klaas about the department’s handling of John Albert Gardner III, the convicted sex offender charged with raping and killing Poway teenager Chelsea King.

Klaas, citing department employees who saw Gardner’s psychological evaluations, said prison officials twice recommended Gardner not be released, and twice Department of Mental Health evaluators disagreed.

Placing Gardner in a state hospital rather than releasing him on parole after serving five years for a 2000 conviction for molesting and beating a 13-year-old girl in Rancho Bernardo might have saved Chelsea’s life, Klaas said.

California, like 19 other states, has a civil-commitment procedure that allows officials to keep violent sex offenders in custody past the end of their prison sentences if they have a mental illness that makes them dangerous and requires hospitalization.

When Jessica’s Law passed in November 2006, it changed the criteria for designation as a sexually violent predator from two offenses to one, and lengthened the list of qualifying crimes. The Department of Mental Health caseload exploded.

It went from 636 referrals in 2006 to 6,705 last year, according to the Union-Tribune data analysis.

The referrals originate with prison officials, who evaluate the offenders as they are nearing the end of their terms.

Department of Mental Health psychologists and psychiatrists then look at the cases and decide which ones should get additional screening. That round of screening determines which of those candidates will be sent to local district attorneys for civil-commitment trials.

The number finally placed in hospitals statewide after that process was 23 in 2006, and grew only to 27 last year despite the high number of referrals, the data review found.

A San Francisco attorney who represents a group of current and former Department of Mental Health sex-offender evaluators in a possible whistle-blower suit against the state said the trends are largely due to the state shifting more to “paper screenings” — reviews of written records instead of face-to-face interviews by two separate evaluators.

That has allowed the department to manage the flood of cases and cut costs amid a severe state budget crisis, said the attorney, Chris Johnson. But he believes it’s against the law, which requires a “full evaluation.” To most mental health professionals, doing a full evaluation involves a personal interview, he said.

“Everybody understands the state is having financial difficulties, but if they want to change the law, they should ask Californians to agree, and not do it on the backs of crime victims,” Johnson said. “We already voted on it, with Jessica’s Law.”

A Mental Health department spokeswoman did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment yesterday. In response to an earlier story addressing similar concerns, the spokeswoman said the department’s screening process “exceeds all statutory requirements” and the evaluators “always err on the side of caution.”

In his letter yesterday to Mayberg, Fletcher asked how often the department does “paper screenings” and under what statutory authority.

“I am asking you to help me in this process and to be part of the solution to ensure the safety of our children from sexual predators,” Fletcher wrote.

The assemblyman, who last week announced plans for a Chelsea’s Law to crack down on sex offenders, also wants the Bureau of State Audits to examine the Mental Health Department’s practices.

Trula LaCalle, executive director of the California office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she could not speak to Fletcher’s concerns because she has no firsthand knowledge of interactions between prison and mental-health officials.

But “the Department of Mental Health is overwhelmed in all areas,” LaCalle said. “Mental Health has been underfunded in this state for decades. The laws themselves may not be the problem. The problem is implementation.”

Jessica's Law prevents paroled sex offenders from residing near schools or parks. That means they can only live one place in S.F.: on the streets.

Ed: If you have ever seen the movie "Idiocracy" or read the book "The Marching Morons" you could get a pretty good idea of what I suspect is the single greatest influence upon society in the last thirty years or so. For a society to so utterly denigrate, and to so thoroughly abandon, its earlier magnificent achievements in justice, liberty, and the arts, must surely require something akin to Dysgenics, a sort of "counter-Darwinian" pressure on natural selection which, in short, lavishes progeny upon those with the least intellectual resources while consigning the most intelligent to a barren maturity bereft of offspring.

How else to explain publicly-driven policies which are informed solely by emotion and a near-total ignorance of basic facts?

When the public demands laws which so clearly violate Constitutional restrictions on ex-post facto punishment and the politicians cynically recast them as "regulatory, not punitive" and our Supreme Court accommodates the whole travesty with the most brazen of affected obtuseness, we must know that we have utterly abandoned any sense of real justice.

If you were to track the location of the GPS unit cinched to Mr. C's ankle on a recent Thursday at dusk, the red dot would veer northeast on Market and then head north on Grant. At Broadway, the dot hooks a U-turn — with all the street's porn shops and strip clubs, he knows he shouldn't get caught there — and finally stops in Union Square.

Mr. C settles onto a bench to rest beside the plaza's ice rink. Chatting about the reason he's tracked by satellites, he doesn't seem to notice a cheery announcer welcoming people to "kids' night out at the skate rink!" As he surveys the skaters, he notices a girl pulling herself around the rink's wall. With a red duffle coat and a brown bob framing ruddy cheeks, she could have been plucked straight from a Gap Christmas commercial. She looks to be about 11.

"People like that — I stay away from," Mr. C says. "Don't even want to look at 'em. Taboo."

Mr. C, now 61, used to love all things "taboo," be it European child porn he locked away in a chest in his Outer Mission garage, or the Israeli and Hungarian semiautomatic weapons he stowed in his bedroom. Then there was the girl.

She was 8, from a family whose older members considered him a friend. "I started to like her a lot, like fall in love kind of thing. ... Somehow you lose track of reality." He knew he shouldn't have "kissed her and touched her" while he was supposed to be babysitting. He knew he shouldn't be taping nude videos of her, directing the smiling girl to stroke one of his weapons, footage even his defense attorney calls "a little sickening." (Mr. C, like most sex offenders SF Weekly interviewed for this article, doesn't want his name printed for his safety.)

So when the cops rang his doorbell early on a December day in 1998, he was ready. He walked into the bathroom in his pajamas, shoved his 9 mm Browning handgun into his mouth, and, when police knocked on the door telling him to come out, he pulled the trigger. Bullet fragments blasted out his teeth and mangled his face. He woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. During the preliminary hearing, he drank a glass of green antifreeze. ("Tastes kinda sweet," he recalls.) He passed out, but survived again.

So Mr. C accepted fate. He pleaded guilty to continuous sexual abuse of a child and spent the next nine years in prison. Considered a "high-risk sex offender," when he was released on parole two months ago he agreed to stay 100 yards away from any place children might gather. That meant no pools, parks, or schools; ice rinks didn't make the list. Yet there's a reason Mr. C is sitting in Union Square insisting on his lack of interest in young girls, rather than at one of the motels where parole officials used to house guys like him.

He's homeless. Californians voted for him to be.

In 2006, voters passed Jessica's Law, a tough-on-crime ballot measure promising to better track people who'd committed sex crimes. Such people would permanently wear GPS devices and be banned from living in "predator-free zones," 2,000 feet from a park or school. In densely populated San Francisco, that basically means the approximately 70 paroled sex offenders in the city can't live anywhere at all. (Although the city is home to 1,100 registered sex offenders, the residency rules are currently enforced only for those released on parole after the passage of the law.)

Some psychiatrists, social workers, police officers, and attorneys contend that Jessica's Law makes everyone less safe. The tumult of transience increases the risk of parolees reoffending, falling into addiction, or going missing altogether. Attorneys and parolees alike complain that the law doesn't merely net child molesters like Mr. C, but also those whose offenses occurred decades ago for sex crimes that had nothing to do with children and were sometimes as minor as indecent exposure.

The state Supreme Court is reviewing a challenge to the law's constitutionality, and will decide by the beginning of February to whom — if anyone — residency restrictions should apply. Until then, those paroled to San Francisco and across the state will remain banished as they have been for the last three years — lone rangers on the fringe.

Mr. C is determined not to go back to prison. While California prisons offer no sex-offender–specific treatments, he swears he's cured and will never reoffend. "I'm really good at turning things off in myself, if I feel that it's gonna do more harm," he says, scanning the skaters gliding by. "Even if I look and saw [them], I don't care. Just like everyone else rolling around, [the girls are] meaningless to me." Out on the street, he gets many chances to prove that every day.

At 8 a.m. sharp each Monday, Mr. C walks up to the parole office in a red building on Mission Street in the shadow of the Central Freeway. Checking in on transient sex offenders, many of whom can't afford cellphones, would require parole agents to hunt them down all over the city. So, every week, parole officers make the homeless come to them.

Dozens of transients arrive by foot, on motorcycle, and in used trucks with mattresses plopped in the back. Mr. C, normally a chatterbox, keeps to himself. Even among sex offenders, there's a hierarchy of shame — child molesters at the top, a guy who exposed himself at a gas station near the bottom — and Mr. C hears others grumble that it's because of people like him that Jessica's Law passed. ("If someone did something to one of my kids, I'd probably cut his hand off," said one man who had been convicted of rape. "They need to give [child molesters] the gas chamber, in my book.")

Mr. C turns in a handwritten log of every place he has been over the last week. Parole officers will later compare it with the GPS printouts. He goes to his psychiatric appointment, and that's it. The rest of his week is less defined by where he needs to be than by where he shouldn't go.

Homelessness may seem a simple concept, but Jessica's Law has turned it into a semantic game. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) policy for parolees defines a residence as "one or more addresses at which a person regularly resides," such as a house, apartment, motel, shelter, or even vehicle. "Regularly" depends on a parole officer's review of the "totality of the circumstances," though guidelines state that when a person stays in the same place for two or more days or nights, or even for one day or night in consecutive weeks, it's starting to look like a residence — even if that "residence" is a couch or shelter bed.

So the trick each day is to avoid acquiring an "address." Some transients live in RVs on out-of-the-way lots. Others park vans in alleys or casino parking lots. The poorest sleep in doorways, beneath underpasses, or outside bus stations. Some unwritten rules show bureaucracy at its most inane: Sign up for a bed at a homeless shelter, and you're establishing a residence; fall asleep on a seat at the drop-in center at the same shelter, and you aren't.

Some parolees can't handle the restrictions. Parole officers say a couple of parolees have placed their GPS units on their desks — a blatant violation — and declared: I can't live like this. Do what you gotta do. At least in prison, they'll have a bed and three meals a day.

While no studies directly connect homelessness to reoffending, the California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) says transience is not helping. The board is an amalgam of legal, law enforcement, and medical experts under the jurisdiction of the CDCR that addresses the handling of the state's sex offenders. A 2008 CASOMB report concluded that homelessness destabilizes parolees' lives, making it harder for them to get and keep jobs, re-establish relationships with families, and reintegrate into society — all safeguards against reoffending.

In San Francisco, evidence of whether homelessness has pushed parolees into committing more sex crimes is anecdotal and inconclusive. While the CDCR declined to give information, Jim Serna, an inspector with the San Francisco Police Department's sex offender registration unit, says he could think of only two cases in which post–Jessica's Law transients have committed further sex crimes. Both were misdemeanor offenses — indecent exposure and sexual battery — though he says both were charged as felonies, given the perpetrators' priors. Yet Serna said both men had long histories of similar crimes, whether homeless or not.

Still, no one needs to look further than Bob H. to see how transience can make it hard to stay out of trouble. On a recent Tuesday morning, the charismatic 360-pound tank of a man plugs in his ankle GPS unit at a cafe across from the Hall of Justice. A gold nugget ring adorns one of his chafed fingers, and the contours of his goatee are blurred for lack of upkeep. "I'm generally a well-dressed cat," he says, "but this is what happens when you sleep in the streets."

When Bob was paroled in 2007 after serving three years for forced oral copulation with an 18-year-old, his parole agent let him switch houses every two days and remain registered as a transient. A few months later, the agent told him he had to move every day. In 2008, parole officials changed the policy, hoping to prevent people from couch-surfing to get around the residency rules. The time limit for staying in any "residence" shrank to just two hours a day, solely to charge a GPS unit. There is no limit on parolees being indoors if they're working, receiving medical care, or seeking government services.

Bob claims when the two-hour policy went into effect, his problems began. He was arrested for registering for a seven-day bed at a homeless shelter, and was sent back to prison. He says his massive frame makes it impossible for him to sleep in a flimsy chair at a shelter, so finding alternatives has become a game of cat and mouse. He has checked into psychiatric wards, declaring himself suicidal, or at a detox drop-in center, declaring himself high — both are technically considered getting treatment by a licensed provider, one of the permitted exceptions to the residency rule. Sometimes he'll snooze on BART; other nights, he'll fall asleep in a hospital emergency room before guards kick him out.

To numb the stress of constantly moving around, Bob says he resorted to smoking crack. That only kicked off a series of dirty drug tests, more parole violations, and more prison.

It's a common scenario. "They're sleeping outside, whatever it takes for them to stay warm, that's what they do," says Na'im Harrison, a case manager at the Northern California Service League, a nonprofit in SOMA that provides services to parolees. "They drink and they smoke crack. It makes them get through their night."

With residential rehab programs rejecting sex offenders (those would be considered residences, anyway), Bob says he began a 20-day outpatient rehab class four times. Each time was interrupted by his being sent back to prison. Once, the charge on his GPS got too low, which was another parole violation. The CDCR confirms that Bob has been charged with nine parole violations and returned to prison five times, the longest stay of which was five months.

Bob says he's trying to get himself together. He recently got certified in a city jobs program, and has been dropping off résumés. He started attending church, and has gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, the mother of his 7-year-old daughter, though he can't live with them any time soon. Yet he says he still drinks hard liquor every night to fall asleep, and feels himself getting addicted. His stress is palpable. He cries as he talks about being exhausted all the time: "They say, 'Don't be involved with the streets,' but they put you in the street. It's like dangling meat in front of a tiger. You're setting us up to fail."

San Francisco was the only county in California that voted against things being this way, rejecting Jessica's Law at the ballot box in 2006. The law draws its name from 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was raped and buried alive in two garbage bags in Florida in 2005 by a previously convicted sex offender. California's version was part of a national wave of such legislation to get tough on sex criminals. It increased mandatory sentences for sex crimes and increased the number of offenders who must be screened for being "sexually violent predators," who are sent to a state psychiatric hospital after completing their prison sentences.

Yet the initiative's vague wording left police unsure of how to implement it. It's "unlawful" for registered sex offenders to reside near schools and parks, yet the initiative doesn't specify whether such a violation should be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Numerous challenges to the law were filed in the courts, attempting to define for whom, exactly, it should be enforced. Anyone who has committed just about any sex-related crime — indecent exposure, pimping of a minor, rape, child molestation, possession of child pornography — must register. There are 88,000 registered sex offenders in California — more than could fit at one time in Candlestick Park — of whom 1,100 live in San Francisco. That would mean a lot of people in "unlawful" housing.

In February 2007, a federal judge limited the scope of the enforcement by ruling that the law could not be applied retroactively. Finally, in August 2007, nine months after voters passed Jessica's Law, CDCR sent out a memo that parole officers should begin enforcing it as a condition of parole for sex offenders released from prison after it had passed. This meant that residency limitations would apply even to those who committed their crimes before the law was enacted.

This wasn't the first time criminals had faced restrictions on where they could sleep. For years, "high-risk sex offenders" have been banned from living within half a mile of a school. Yet Jessica's Law blacked out nearly all of San Francisco other than Pier 80, AT&T Park, a couple of high-rent blocks in SOMA, and the empty Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Parolees living anywhere else were served notices to move out in 45 days.

It's unclear whether the measure's author, state Senator George Runner (R-Lancaster), saw the storm coming. "I think we knew it would be difficult for individuals to find areas to live," he told SF Weekly. "We certainly knew San Francisco was going to be a more challenging issue." Yet the president of Crime Victims United of California, a group that strongly endorsed Jessica's Law, says Runner never addressed her warnings. "We raised concern with the senator about that," Harriet Salarno says. "We voiced, 'What are you going to do with people in San Francisco?'" It was an enormous oversight. According to CASOMB's report, the number of transient sex offenders jumped 800 percent across the state between when the law passed and June 2008.

Serna points to another of the law's flaws: Although Jessica's Law restricted sex offenders from living at a residence 2,000 feet from a park or school, it didn't prevent them from sleeping on a bench in the park (one sex offender told SF Weekly he sleeps in Golden Gate Park) or at the school's front door. CDCR representatives say parole conditions cover that loophole by banning sex offenders from parks and schools. Still, the irony is not lost on parolees, who know their parole agents don't track their whereabouts at all times.

"When I was living in Pacific Heights in a box, I was, like, a block away from a school," said one sex offender who asked not to be named. "I'm on GPS, but I could go rape a kid and they wouldn't know about it until three days later."

While people debate the efficacy of the residency rules, state law enforcement agencies are waiting to see whether the California Supreme Court throws those rules out. In October 2007, four unnamed parolees filed a habeas corpus writ asking to be exempted from the residency restrictions. Three of them faced having to move out of their homes within days or be arrested on parole violations; one of them was already homeless. One San Francisco petitioner, E.J., who lived with his wife and their four children under 12, had been denied a transfer by the parole department to another county where he could find housing.

The parolees' attorneys argue the law is unconstitutional and overly broad, since it excludes sex offenders from living in entire cities and keeps those whose crimes didn't involve children from living near schools and parks. Then there's the fact that many now subject to residency limitations are on parole for new, non-sex-related crimes, which is true of the petitioners in the case. For instance, S.P. was on parole for knowingly receiving stolen property, and K.T. had been most recently convicted of felony grand theft.

At a Supreme Court hearing on the case in November, Ernest Galvan, one of the attorneys representing the four petitioners, argued the law violates the ex post facto statute, which refers to the fact that no one can be punished by a law that didn't exist when they committed their crime. He argued that, at the most, the enforcement of the statute should be limited to those who had committed sex crimes after the law passed.

Ken Mennemeier, the lawyer for the CDCR, contends that the law is constitutional since it doesn't restrict whom the offenders can live with, merely where they can live. He argues that no federal authority has established the right of convicted sex offenders to live wherever they want. Moreover, he says the residency restrictions are a regulatory measure, not a punishment, so the ex post facto law doesn't even apply.

Galvan disagreed. He told SF Weekly that it seems like medieval banishment: "You're condemned to be a wraith walking the streets."

After dusk, the Jessica's Law wraiths start to settle on a shadowy street across from high-end condos a block from the Caltrain depot in SOMA. You could call it an encampment. On any given evening, up to a dozen sex offenders find it a safe place to sleep with minimal interference from law enforcement.

On a Tuesday night in mid-December, the men hung out before heading to sleep in their vans and tents: smoking cigarettes, one popping open a 24-ounce can of Steel Reserve. They grumbled about Jessica's Law, and one announced that his pee jug — an empty bottle many keep handy to take a leak without having to go in the street — had been stolen.

But the main topic of discussion that night was that Monroe had gone back to jail. He always slept in a sleeping bag under a blue tarp on the sidewalk, snuggling with a radio tuned to soft rock on KBLX to break up the solitude. His GPS unit had broken or fallen off — the story was unclear — and he hadn't immediately called his parole agent as the rules required.

It was an all-too-common cautionary tale about how easy it is to get locked up again. Jessica's Law is "inhuman," said one man who rolled a suitcase up to a rank-smelling van he said he was "renting" from another parolee who got sent back to jail. "But I'd rather be inhuman out here than human in there" — "there" meaning prison.

The men have learned to navigate the rules, and sometimes how to work around them. As one put it, "I gotta play the game with 'em [the parole department] to keep 'em happy." Another says he found a "loophole, but they're trying to close it on me." Since parolees are allowed to travel within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco, he sleeps at his wife's house in the East Bay for two nights, and returns to the city on the third. (Parole agents told SF Weekly that isn't allowed.)

The block these men are staying on is a loophole, too, though more of an official one. It's too close to a park or school for them to live indoors, but according to a parole department memo released in July, transient encampments, bridges, and bus stops are not "residences." The distance restrictions don't apply.

Still, the parole officers don't particularly like the offenders clustering here. One parolee said that he, like many others, had been told to move on. Technically, it's a violation for parolees to hang out together unless they are receiving social services. And they're definitely forbidden to live in the same residence (two sex offender parolees were busted this fall for sharing an RV). But they claim they've been given bizarre instructions on how to bend that rule as well. One parole agent told them to stay 6 or 7 feet away from the next guy. They don't always obey. They talk to each other face-to-face, and one transient said he and another man sleep at opposite ends of his 6-foot-wide tent.

Each morning, a cop walks by to tell the men on the sidewalk to move on. The ones with vans can keep them parked. One transient sweeps away cigarette butts and beer cans, and the men pack up and take off for the day, a band of nomads constantly on the move.

Many of the men at the encampment are well into or past middle age, having served sentences for serious sex offenses decades ago that, with few exceptions, they insist they didn't commit. But Jessica's Law has also netted people whose original crime was arguably minor — such as Rod (not his real name). A plump, gregarious middle-aged man, Rod prefers blazing around solo in his red Windstar instead of hunkering down with the other guys in the city. Usually. On a recent afternoon, his mother rode shotgun while complaining about her son getting arrested for oversleeping at his house.

Rod's record of petty offenses could wallpaper a bathroom. He has picked up a couple of harder convictions for drug possession, too. But the severity of his sex offense? According to the police, Rod strolled into a Shell gas station in South San Francisco at 7 a.m. in August 1995, "pulled out his penis, and raised his arms."

Rod remembers it somewhat differently and without shame: "I had a 60-inch waist. I'm really fat. So when I sit down, I unbuckle my pants." He says he walked into the gas station without remembering to zip back up, and "I don't wear underwear, so I guess my thing was hanging out." Even the California Department of Justice determined that the indecent exposure offense wasn't grave enough for Rod's mugshot to appear on the state's online sex offender registry. Though his face is spared a viewing at a mouse click, he does still have to register with the police. (The SFPD confirmed that this is for his indecent exposure case in 1995.) So when he missed a deadline to register, he was arrested and sent to San Quentin.

Released last year on parole, he was subject to Jessica's Law, just like hundreds of others across the state who aren't on parole for the crime that made them a sex offender in the first place. Rod's story gets even more improbable. Parolees are supposed to be returned to their county of last residence, which Rod says would mean San Mateo, where he still pays rent. He believes his parents' house there would be compliant with Jessica's Law. Yet a paperwork mixup prevents him from living with his folks. A document in his probation file showed a residential rehab program in San Francisco as a past address, and so he was paroled here. His efforts to get transferred back have failed so far.

Rod has found one place where it's in the house's interest that he stay as long as possible: 24-hour card clubs. He says he sits down almost nightly to play Texas Hold 'Em until the early morning hours. He guesses he's gambled away tens of thousands of dollars in the last year of homelessness, and is plummeting into credit card debt. "I would leave [while I'm winning], if I had somewhere to go," he says. Recently, he's been sleeping in casino parking lots.

Oakland attorney Robert Beles wrote to Rod's parole agent, arguing that Rod should be exempt from Jessica's Law because Rod committed his offense more than 10 years prior to the law's passage. Parole officials' response can be best summed up in two words: shot down. Beles says he made the same request in a habeas corpus writ in Alameda County Superior Court. The judge, like others in the state considering similar pleas, put the case on hold, waiting for the state Supreme Court to decide.

While the opposing attorneys pushed their interpretations of the law at the November hearing, the Supreme Court justices asked about people like Rod, who were caught in the middle. Would enforcement be illegally retroactive if it applies to those who had long been discharged from parole for their sex offenses, but were on parole for new non-sex-related crimes?

Galvan says that for the ban on retroactivity to apply, the justices would have to determine that the residency restrictions are actually a punishment and not simply a civil regulation. The issue has divided the country's courts, he says, with a handful of state supreme courts ruling that it's a punishment, and the U.S. Supreme Court stretching in favor of a civil regulation.

At least one California Supreme Court justice seemed to agree with Galvan that the law puts offenders in an unfair predicament. Justice Carol Corrigan said that paroling people to a county where they couldn't live indoors "would be an absurd interpretation," and wondered whether they could be transferred to counties with more housing options. Galvan responded that the receiving counties would undoubtedly object; plus the move would require the justices to tinker with the legislation, when they usually just interpret it.

The question of who will continue to be affected by the law and who will not remains as the early February ruling approaches. Since California is home to the most sex offenders in the country, the ruling will certainly reverberate nationally.

But some of the greatest effects of the decision will be much more local — for the roughly 70 parolees here in the city who are currently living in a voter-inflicted paradox. "They don't want you to stay, but they don't want you to go," Bob H. says.

As for Mr. C, he isn't holding out much hope that the justices will let him move indoors. He assumes he'll just continue the routine he has established in his two months out of jail. He hangs out at a nonprofit during the day, or runs a few errands. As he ambles around San Francisco, he talks to keep himself company and turns down panhandlers who ask him for change: "Buddy, I'm as broke as you are." With just a sweatshirt on his back, he'll sometimes pretend to read brochures in the BART station to warm up. His pride keeps him from lying down.

When teenage girls get on the J-Church train, Mr. C can't help but notice how developed they are at young ages these days: "Big butts and boobs — like, dang, what did they put in their food?" But years of prison will kill your taste for such things, he says: "It's scary to think about it, even." As for the victim of his molestation, "It's not her fault. I hope she turned out normal."

Though being homeless embarrasses him, it also offers a comforting dose of anonymity. Peering into shop windows he passes, Mr. C avoids glimpsing his face, the disfigured reminder of his past. Out here, he can simply be the friendly old man who was delighted when a dog he'd petted earlier in Union Square followed him down Market Street. ("At least I know dogs still like me," he says, brightly.) To the teen selling light sabers outside Macy's, he's the rare passerby who actually answers his corny sales pitch: "Be a kid again!"

"I wish," Mr. C huffs.

"You don't have to wish," the kid calls after him. "It's six dollars!"

At the end of his evening's walk, Mr. C shuffles up to the shelter to take his post-prison place in the city, greeting another homeless man outside: "Hey, Bill."

"Wazzup, Pops?"

Mr. C considers the greeting, concludes, "I'm old," and walks inside to claim a hard seat.

Asked whether he's happy after surviving his suicide attempts, he answers, "I'm kind of in between. I'm hoping things will work out." He figures maybe he's got 15 years left, and he'd like to make them at least peaceful: a roof over his head, some welfare cash in his pocket, antidepressants in his system. With his history, he knows he'll be alone.