Southern California

Calif. Seeks Solutions to Homeless Sex Offender Rate

California has as many homeless sex offenders now as it did 2½ years ago, when a state Supreme Court ruling that overturned restrictions on where they could live was seen as a way to increase housing options and allow law enforcement to better track them.

Sex offenders must register with the state and provide new addresses when they move. Those who are homeless are less apt to keep their locations updated and more likely to commit new crimes.

The number of homeless offenders more than tripled after voters banned sex offenders from living near schools and parks a decade ago, and it was thought the number would fall with the Supreme Court's March 2015 decision.

But as of early July, there were 6,329 homeless sex offenders on the California Justice Department's sex offender registry — down only a hair from the 6,422 in January 2015.

"It's a significant number to be concerned about," said Gerry Blasingame, a psychologist who treats abusers and victims and represents the California Coalition on Sexual Offending on the state Sex Offender Management Board. "It's just a complicated issue, and it's difficult to ferret out the causes."

The board is planning a $25,000 study through San Jose State University to try to figure out why the number remains high. Meantime, the Legislature is considering ending California's requirement that all sex offenders register for life. Proponents believe that makes it harder for offenders to get jobs and stay off the streets.

That was a sentiment state Supreme Court justices cited in overturning a component of Jessica's Law that banned sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet (610 meters) of schools, parks and other places where children gather. That requirement effectively blocked them from living in most parts of major California cities.

The justices agreed with experts who said stable homes, jobs and family ties are important to deter new crimes. Moreover, the court found that when offenders lack permanent homes, it's tougher for law enforcement officers to track their locations and activities.

A 2016 study by U.S. and Canadian researchers and California's Justice Department found offenders who are transient were several times more likely to commit new sex crimes. Only about 6 percent of registered California sex offenders have no permanent address, but that group accounts for 19 percent of new sex crime arrests among those on probation and one-third among those on parole.

In 2014, two homeless Orange County sex offenders - one on federal probation, the other on state parole - were charged with raping and killing four women. Steven Dean Gordon has been sentenced to death, while Franc Cano is awaiting trial.

State parole officials abandoned the Jessica's Law housing limits after the Supreme Court's ruling, unless they found a direct connection between where a parolee lived and the underlying crime. That change left about three-quarters of the state's previously restricted sex offender parolees free to live where they pleased, and yet the homeless population has remained static.

That may partly be the result of some local governments being slow to repeal their own housing bans to comply with the high court's decision.

California Reform Sex Offender Laws President Janice Bellucci, an attorney, sued 23 Southern California cities over that issue, and all but seven have since revised or repealed their ordinances. In April, she warned another 50 cities they could be sued if they don't comply.

Criminal Justice Legal Foundation President Michael Rushford, whose organization advocates for crime victims, said the high number of sex offenders on the street may be a symptom of California's recent reductions in criminal penalties to reduce prison overcrowding.

"I guess this is just kind of what you get when you just continually loosen the cuffs on these guys," he said. Yet it's unclear if the housing ban deterred crime, Rushford said, in part because it restricted where offenders slept but left them free to spend their waking hours near schools or parks.

With little organized opposition, California lawmakers are advancing legislation to reduce the number of offenders on the state's registry.

"It really can ruin people's lives," said the bill's author, Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco. "There are clearly registered sex offenders who become homeless because they are on the registry."

California, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina are the only states requiring lifetime registration. Wiener's bill would require those convicted of misdemeanor or nonviolent sex crimes to register for 10 years and those convicted of serious or violent felonies for 20 years.

Sexually violent predators, repeat violent offenders and those convicted of sex offenses requiring life sentences would still have lifetime registrations.

State Board of Equalization member George Runner, who co-sponsored Jessica's Law while he was in the state Senate, said criminal behavior is a problem among the homeless regardless of whether they are sex offenders.

"The solution to that isn't, nor will the public accept, that the solution is to let this offender live across the street from our kindergarten," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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