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Sex offender laws are leading to homelessness

Consequence is opposite of intent in many states

By Karl Vick
Washington Post / January 2, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - Upon release from state custody, Ross Wollschlager began an intensive search for a home, one that abided by the restrictions imposed on convicted sex offenders in California - and, in various iterations, by about 30 other states. Obliged by law to return to Ventura County, the convicted rapist was forbidden to sleep within 2,000 feet of a school or a park.

He ended up in a tent on the dry bed of the Ventura River.

Strict new laws aimed at keeping track of sex offenders after they leave prison appear to be having the opposite effect, encouraging homelessness in a population believed more likely to reoffend if cast into the streets without structure or family support, say prosecutors, police, parole officials and specialists on managing sex offenders.

The issue is starkest in California, where the number of sex crime parolees registering as transient has jumped more than 800 percent since Proposition 83 was passed in November 2006. "Jessica's Law" imposed strict residency rules and called for all offenders to wear Global Positioning System bracelets for the rest of their lives.

Named for a 9-year-old Florida girl raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender, the provision passed by a wide margin that reflected the powerful public emotion that experts and law enforcement officials say in this instance trumped sound policy.

"The public definitely was sold a bill of goods on this one," said Detective Diane Webb, supervisor of the Los Angeles Police Department unit that tracks 5,000 sex offenders in Los Angeles County. "Unfortunately, it bodes well for politicians to support it because the public does have this false sense of security that this is somehow protecting them when it's not."

Locating legal housing for offenders has become so difficult in urban California that when parole officers find an apartment building beyond the exclusion zones, they often pile in as many offenders as the landlord will accept. When neighbors notice, the cluster spurs protests that prompt lawmakers to pass even tighter exclusion zones, as Proposition 83 allows.

In Long Beach, the City Council this year passed a bill expanding such zones to areas near child-care centers and beaches after residents learned of 19 offenders living in a small apartment building. The provision made it nearly impossible to house a sex crime parolee in the city of 500,000.

Nearby Carson followed suit after parole officers placed 30 offenders in a hotel in a light industrial area. Pomona included areas near railroad stations and bus stops.

"If you want to game the system, you use your redevelopment agency to buy up vacant lots and turn them into 'pocket parks,' " Carson City Attorney William Wynder told a gathering of officials from affected communities in the fall. The idea: Design the equivalent of San Francisco, where the dense geography of schools and parks rendered the entire city an exclusion zone.

"It is almost geo-spatially impossible to house a sex offender in San Francisco," said Suzanne Brown-McBride, who chairs the California Sex Offender Management Board. The board this month issued a report lamenting the unintended consequences of Jessica's Law. "Common sense leads to the conclusion that a community cannot be safer when sex offenders are homeless," the report said.

Similar complications face 31 other states that have passed residency restrictions. Georgia's Supreme Court last year struck down its law on the grounds that the 1,000-foot restriction violated property rights; the succeeding measure also faces a court challenge. Homeless offenders in Miami huddled nightly under a bridge after being kicked off a vacant lot neighboring a center for abused children.

In Iowa, the number of sex offenders whose whereabouts were unknown doubled after passage of residence restrictions.

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