By John Simerman
SACRAMENTO — California's free-swinging approach to laws aimed at sex offenders has made thousands of them homeless, bloated the parolee database and spawned costly programs with little evidence they make residents safer, according to members of a state board that recommended several changes Tuesday.
Those laws also failed to help nab Phillip Garrido, the paroled rapist accused of abducting Jaycee Dugard, said lawmakers at a Capitol hearing Tuesday.
Just what they figure to do about it remains uncertain. A handful of state lawmakers at the hearing openly mulled the political risks of a "soft on crime" tag.
Homelessness has spread among the parolees, said Matthew Cate, secretary of corrections and rehabilitation. More than a quarter of the 8,750 offenders on parole are transient, and another 900 are at large, he said.
Before Jessica's Law, which barred sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park where children regularly gather, fewer than 100 were homeless.
In San Francisco, which is blanketed with the 2,000-foot zones, 84 percent of paroled sex offenders are homeless, he said.
The state Sex Offender Management Board, which issued the report, cites studies showing that kind of instability increases the risk of another sex offense.
GPS can help parole agents keep track, Cate said, but he admitted the state agency has struggled with the technology. Garrido's parole agent ignored dozens of alarms that the parolee's GPS anklet failed to send a signal.
Cate said about 7,100 parolee sex offenders have GPS anklets, at a cost of more than $55 million a year.
Again expressing regret for the agency's handling of the Garrido case, Cate cited several changes made since, including more training for agents, a new level of parole management and closer scrutiny of GPS signals.
Some lawmakers asked whether some of the money would be better spent on treatment.
The state has largely ignored treatment, despite studies that show it significantly reduces recidivism, said Tom Tobin, a Contra Costa County psychologist and board member.
"Treatment is not coddling sex offenders. It's tough. Most sex offenders don't like it," he said. "It isn't a cure. It isn't magic. It doesn't have a positive outcome in all cases. But what does?"
Cate said the agency plans to spend $8 million on a pilot program for 800 high-risk offenders that includes treatment and other services to keep them from reoffending.
The 16-member board includes representatives of law enforcement, prosecutors, state corrections, victim advocates, county probation and treatment providers.
Their report recommends several changes to focus more attention on high-risk offenders.
- Instead of barring all sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, as Jessica's Law does, apply it to only the most serious offenders, with loitering restrictions for all.
- Use GPS monitoring only with some form of community supervision.
- Create a routine treatment program for all sex offenders under supervision.
Deputy Attorney General Janet Neeley, who helped create the parolee database, said the state should distinguish risk levels among all sex offenders and, like most other states, limit the time low-risk offenders stay on the registry.
Now, they remain there for life.
That would shrink the parolee database and give residents more useful information, she said.
Part of the trouble, she said, is "stranger danger." High-profile abductions or murders often spawn expansive laws, when more than 90 percent of child sex abuse victims know their abusers.
Changes in Jessica's Law that could be seen as weakening it would need voter approval.
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, recalled being labeled "pure evil" by his own party when he balked at tough residency restrictions for sex offenders, before 70 percent of voters backed them in 2006.
"How we untie this knot now, I can tell you, is not going to be easy," he said.
"The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly." - Abraham Lincoln