By Nick Monacelli
SACRAMENTO - Operation Safe Playground, the largest state-wide sex offender sweep ever done in California, was a huge success, according to officials with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabiliation.
By Thursday night, 579 parolees were arrested on parole violations, 59 of them from Northern California.
But while three teams of at least 20 agents were searching homes and hotel rooms, one comment was made repeatadly -- Jessica's Law (PDF) is causing problems.
"It has very good intentions," said apprehension agent Brooke Orendorff. "Unfortunately, the application of this law has caused some difficulties for those that are dealing with the (sex offender) population."
Orendorff and other agents were alluding to the residency restrictions that went into affect after 70 percent of California voters passed the law in 2006.
- Well, 70% of the voters probably think all sex offenders are pedophiles as well.
It forces registered sex offenders to live no less than 2,000 feet from a school or playground.
"The system needs to stop forcing people to be homeless after they serve their time," said offender [name withheld].
After being convicted of rape, [name withheld] served time in a state prison. When he was released, the state found him a motel.
"They stuck me in a rat-infested motel," [name withheld] said. "I had to walk the streets. It took months to find a place to live."
[name withheld] isn't the only one. Parole agents say because of the restrictions, more and more offenders are becoming transient rather than staying put.
"That's one reason I'm here in this motel," said offender [name withheld]. "I have friends that I could stay with but because they're so close to (a school), it can be a pain sometimes looking for housing."
Orendorff said when she maintained a sex offender case load, five to 10 of her 40 parolees were transient.
"I might have had maybe one or two that would have been transient if the law wasn't in place," she said. "Because of the restrictions it made quite a few more."
But those still standing up for Jessica's Law argue the other provisions of the law, including GPS monitoring, still help.
St. Sen. George Runner, R- Antelope Valley, said even if released offenders are transient, GPS lets agents know where they are.
"Before GPS you still had a number of parolees that were obsconders -- they just didn't check in," Runner said. "So you had these parolees at large and you never knew where they are. Now it's impossible for a sex offender under Jessica's Law to be a parolee at large unless they snip off their GPS."
Jessica's Law most recently made headlines when a Los Angeles County Judge ordered the residency restrictions unconstitutional.
Runner admitted the 2,000 feet rule may be a problem for some jurisdictions. That is why he introduced a bill to allow local entities to decide the distance on their own. That bill never made it past committee.
However, Runner still says the Los Angeles judge made a big mistake.
- You can't tell anyone where they can and cannot live. Not until the sex offender hysteria began spreading by ignorant politicians and the media. It's unconstitutional, period!
"Rather than look at the distance issue and say, 'If 2,000 feet doesn't work, then maybe what we should do is look at 1,500 feet or 1,000.' That would have been the responsible thing to do. What he did is basically gave a free card to every sex offender who's on parole in L.A. county," Runner said.
Runner plans to continue the conversation on modifying the distance restriction. Until then, agents say their battle will be an uphill one.
"At times it can frustrating as far as the housing goes," said agent Greg Shuman. "But right now, we're following the law to the T."