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Laws Restricting Lives of Sex Offenders Raise Constitutional Questions

January 17, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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Twenty-two states have laws that restrict where convicted sex offenders may live and, in some cases, how they interact with the community after they are released from prison. Jeffrey Kaye reports on the laws and the constitutional questions they've raised.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, restricting where sex offenders can live. NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports on California’s laws.

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour Correspondent: On a recent Friday afternoon, California parole agents arrived at the Long Beach apartment of a former prison inmate who had done time for attempting to molest children.

POLICE OFFICER: Your stuff is over here?

SEX OFFENDER PAROLEE: Yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: The agents came to make sure the parolee, who asked not to be identified, was moving out of his apartment. If he didn’t, he’d be arrested.

POLICE OFFICER: You know Monday’s our deadline. I mean, you have to move by Monday.

JEFFREY KAYE: The agents were enforcing a new California law that restricts where paroled sex offenders may live.

Approved as a 2006 ballot proposition by 70 percent of voters, the statute also requires released sex offenders to wear tracking devices for life.

And it allows prosecutors, such as San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, to obtain tougher penalties and much longer prison sentences for sex offenders.

BONNIE DUMANIS, San Diego County District Attorney: I’ve seen the devastation that happens with children who are the victims of molest.

JEFFREY KAYE: Dumanis campaigned for the California law, arguing it was needed to protect the state’s children.

BONNIE DUMANIS: There were loopholes in the law. California was one of the weakest in terms of the law. There were many other states that were ahead of us. And we felt it was important to protect the kids in our community from being victimized over and over again.

Problems of compliance

P. Price
Parole agent
Some places that are motels that I know are in compliance--if they're not filled up, I can try to give him cash assistance to put him in one of those places. If they're filled up, my hands are tied.

JEFFREY KAYE: The California statute and similar ones elsewhere are commonly known as Jessica's Law, named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in 2005 by a registered sex offender who had been paroled in 1980.

Around the country, 22 states have residency restrictions for sex offenders, as do hundreds of municipalities and counties, provisions that are turning out to be controversial and often difficult to enforce.

In California, sex offenders are now prohibited from living within 2,000 feet of parks and schools. Parole agents Price and Gibson -- they asked us not to use their first names -- use hand-held satellite tracking devices to measure distances.

POLICE OFFICER: ... 220 yards.

JEFFREY KAYE: The agents determined the parolee had to move. He was living too close to a Long Beach park.

It's Friday. You have to be out by Monday. You can't live here anymore. What are you going to do?

SEX OFFENDER PAROLEE: I don't know. I'm going to have to prevail upon my parole agent for assistance.

JEFFREY KAYE: What can you do for him?

P. PRICE, PAROLE AGENT: Some places that are motels that I know are in compliance, if they're not filled up, I can try to give him cash assistance to put him in one of those places.

If they're filled up, my hands are tied. In the past, I've told him areas that are in compliance, as far as apartment stuff, and he's been looking in those areas, but so far he hasn't got any place yet.

JEFFREY KAYE: This man isn't alone. A survey in July showed some 2,100 California parolees were violating the new residency rules.

That's largely because of sheer geography. In cities and suburbs, it's almost impossible to find available homes that are not near parks or schools.

This map of the Long Beach region shows the difficulty. The red areas are where sex offenders released from prison since the adoption of Jessica's Law may not live. What's left are largely non-residential or industrial neighborhoods with few, if any, housing options.

In the parking lot of the state parole office in Long Beach, a sex offender approached us to complain he couldn't find a place to move.

SEX OFFENDER PAROLEE: You know, the supervisor told me that I would get arrested if I'm close to a school. I don't know what to do anymore; I don't know what to do anymore.

JEFFREY KAYE: This man, a rapist who was convicted of drugging his victim, thought he might soon be homeless.

That's what's happened to other sex offenders, such as serial rapist Ross Wollschlager. Unable to find a place to live, the parolee now spends his nights camping in a riverbed north of Los Angeles.

The state keeps tabs on him through his satellite tracking device and pays a private security guard to watch him at night.

ROSS WOLLSCHLAGER, Convicted Rapist: I ended up being homeless, and came out here to the river bottom, and just looked for a place where I could camp a tent.

I don't know what other options I have at the time. And I'm trying to do everything I can to at least find a safe place so I can stay and so the community won't be so alarmed about my presence here.

Tracking offenders' whereabouts

Elizabeth Barnhill
Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault
At one point when I reviewed our sex offender registry, I found things like, "I am living in an old truck parked at the abandoned K-Mart." "I'm living in a truck down by the river."

JEFFREY KAYE: It's no surprise that sex offenders are critical of Jessica's Law, but so, too, are many police officials and victims' rights advocates.

SUZANNE BROWN-MCBRIDE, California Sex Offender Management Board: I can tell you that it hasn't resolved the sex offender problem in California.

JEFFREY KAYE: Suzanne Brown-McBride is executive director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, as well as the chairperson of the state board that shapes sex offender policies in California. She fears residency restrictions are backfiring and driving sex offenders off the radar screen.

SUZANNE BROWN-MCBRIDE: So you go from a place where you have an offender where you know where they live, you know where they're sleeping, you can check up on them and monitor them, to they're transient and you have only really a guess of where they're at, that they may be down at some different part of the city, they may be down in an alley somewhere.

So you go from a known quantity to, quite honestly, a fairly unknown one.

JEFFREY KAYE: That was the experience in Iowa, according to Elizabeth Barnhill, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She says that, after Iowa passed its version of Jessica's Law in 2005, many sex offenders disappeared from the system.

ELIZABETH BARNHILL, Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault: We found they were living in very unstable situations. So at one point when I reviewed our sex offender registry, I found things like, "I am living in an old truck parked at the abandoned K-Mart." "I'm living in a truck down by the river." "I'm living in the QuikTrip when everybody leaves for the night."

So we know that those are very unstable conditions. And we know that there is a relationship between unstable living conditions and re-offending.

JEFFREY KAYE: Defenders of Jessica's Law, such as District Attorney Dumanis, say authorities will know the exact whereabouts of sex offenders because of the satellite tracking devices they're required to wear.

BONNIE DUMANIS: I call that the LoJack for sex offenders. If people become transient, we're still going to be looking for them. We will be watching them to make sure that they don't prey on children again.

P. PRICE: We strap it to the left ankle of the parolee.

JEFFREY KAYE: For parole agent Price and his colleagues, the monitoring devices -- known by their commercial name, BlueTags -- have become essential tools.

P. PRICE: It tells me the last time he got positioned from a GPS. It tells me the latitude, longitude.

JEFFREY KAYE: But Price acknowledges that GPS, global positioning satellite technology, has its limits. While Price would not elaborate, Brown-McBride did.

SUZANNE BROWN-MCBRIDE: Well, people expect GPS to have almost a Star Trek-like technology, that we sort of know in very real time where people are moment to moment.

What I think the public doesn't understand is that false alarms are common, dropping off of the map is fairly common, that we're still trying to get the training for the folks who are doing this kind of supervision, that we still have shortages in personnel.

Addressing misconceptions

Bonnie Dumanis
San Diego County District Attorney
It's progress, not perfection. The real intent of Jessica's Law is to put people that violate children and others in prison.

JEFFREY KAYE: Brown-McBride and other critics like measures of Jessica's Law also argue that they reinforce public misperceptions, namely, that most sex offenders are strangers who prowl public places and strike victims from out of the blue.

SUZANNE BROWN-MCBRIDE: About 90 percent of them have some sort of acquaintance with their offender, whether it be sort of a family friend, all the way to it's a member of their own household. And so, when we ignore that, what we've done then is made massive commitments to policy options that address the narrowest set of circumstances.

JEFFREY KAYE: Defenders of the law say it's too soon to draw conclusions.

BONNIE DUMANIS: Let's see what happens so that we can see whether or not this is a problem. But I'm not ready to say the sky's falling right now. We'll take a look at it.

You know, it's progress, not perfection. The real intent of Jessica's Law is to put people that violate children and others in prison.

JEFFREY KAYE: And keep them there?

BONNIE DUMANIS: And keep them there.

POLICE OFFICER: Can you show me your stuff, show me your area?

JEFFREY KAYE: As for the sex offender we met in his Long Beach apartment, he couldn't find a new residence in time to comply with Jessica's Law. He's now back in prison for at least three months.