Roaming sex offenders on the rise
Some made homeless by law barring them from areas near schools, parks
By John Simerman, STAFF WRITER
SAN PABLO — S.T. is a registered sex offender with a wife, three kids and a cozy apartment near Hilltop Mall. But every night he roams the dark streets in a pea coat, a wool cap and a GPS tracker strapped to his left ankle.
He'd 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 prison shoes he wore out of San Quentin this month and walks to his favorite bus stop shelter. He 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.
When light breaks he shakes off the chill and heads home — but never before 7 a.m., because that's when his parole officer says it's 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 says 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's not alone. State corrections figures show a big spike 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, victim advocates and even the law's Republican 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 region that runs 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's where they spend the night.
The rise in transients is a concern, said Gareth Lacy, spokesman for 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 any policy for parole agents to tell people like 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 parolee's knew their options under the law," said state corrections spokesman Bill Sessa. "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 unless a court rules otherwise. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule in spring on a challenge to the law.
"The continuing issue is there have to be places for people to live," said Sessa. "The number of sex offenders covered by the law will be constantly expanding."
Transients can't set up anywhere, said Sessa. They can't sleep, for instance, under a bridge for several nights if it's too close to a school or park, he said. But 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."
For S.T., it feels more like an imbalance.
He was convicted in 1990 of an assault with intent to commit rape against his son's teacher. Court documents say he sprayed her with mace, hit her in the head and tried to force her legs open with his knees before a school janitor came with a shovel and he ran off.
Court documents show he suffered bouts of alcoholism, depression and hallucinations. He pleaded guilty and received a 64-month prison sentence.
He has since committed other crimes, records show. The latest came early this year. He was convicted of battery on a police officer after a takedown in 2005 during an attempt to arrest him as a parolee-at-large. He bit an officer's finger. When he left prison early this month, he fell under Jessica's Law.
His wife often joins him early on his nightly journey. They hold hands and circle the mall. Then he walks her back home, across from a church school.
"This is for me to feel what he's going through," she says 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. says his parole officer told him: "Wherever you go, just keep it moving." That's usually what he does, if only to keep warm.
"I'm really — how would you say? — traumatized," he says. "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 the state is misguided in its early enforcement of the law, and that policymakers need to be more "creative."
Sen. George Runner, R-Antelope Valley, 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 he never meant the law for people such as S.T. who fall under Jessica's Law only because of non-sex convictions. That borders on being retroactive, he said.
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 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 are merely 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 fixes, 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.
O'Malley couldn't grasp the purpose of S.T. wandering the streets at night.
"That's not good," she said. "What does that do?"
Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or e-mail email@example.com.
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