“Sex offender” is a scary term. But in California, it can mean anyone from a multiple-count rapist of children to, at least in some cases according to the way the laws are written, someone who exposed themselves once while drunk or even consensual sex.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, wants to change that. The chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee has introduced legislation that would create a tiered system for registering and monitoring sex offenders.
So far, AB 625, also known as the “Sex Offender Registration Act,” is just a placeholder that announces the intention “to establish a tiered sex offender registration law.” Ammiano argues that the bill will increase public safety while saving the state money.
“With the skyrocketing costs of corrections in California, we need to base our management and enforcement of sex offenders on the research and data available rather than emotion,” Ammiano said in a written statement. “This means focusing our efforts and resources on the most dangerous offenders to ensure that the registry achieves its primary goal – to keep our children and communities safe.”
Indeed, California has been a leader in tracking sex offenders. It has one of the first and most extensive websites showing where sex offenders live, and bars them from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park.
But critics note that when the residency restrictions are combined with the large number of sex offenders being tracked, the database shows clusters of sex offenders living in certain areas. Furthermore, they note there is a huge burden on law enforcement to track so many people, some of whom may pose little risk to public safety.
Ammiano’s bill builds on the results of a January 2010 report from the California Sex Offender Management Board. This 17-member body includes both law enforcement and mental health professionals, and makes recommendations on how to handle these offenders once they are released back into society.
The report states that “California should concentrate state resources on more closely monitoring high and moderate risk sex offenders” and “identify a more efficient method of determining when a parole violation is related to re-offense risk.” Ammiano’s office points out this report was approved by a board staffed with former district attorneys, detectives and parole agents.
It goes on to indentify the most worrisome offenders: those with violent offenses, those who preyed on children, multiple offenders, and those who are classified as sexually violent predators (SVPs). This last group consists of people with multiple violent sexual offenses and a confirmed psychiatric disorder that makes it disproportionately likely they will re-offend. Only about 1,700 of the 88,000 sex offenders currently being tracked by the state hit the SVP level.
There are about 200 crimes that can land an offender on the state’s lifetime monitoring list. Most of these are serious and relate to forced sexual behavior.
But there are other crimes on the list that fall into a gray area for some, including indecent exposure. While no one is suggesting legalizing these practices, many question whether they warrant lifetime monitoring. Of particular importance are laws against having sex with someone under 18, which some say are enforce unequally between different jurisdictions or between straight and gay offenders.
While few people question laws punishing 40-years-olds for having sex with minors, others point out that 19 year-olds who have consensual sex with 17-year-old romantic partners have also been pulled in.
California is also one of only four states — Alabama, Florida and South Carolina are the others — that require lifetime registration and monitoring for all sex offenders, regardless of offense.
The office of Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, said they were “keeping an eye” on the bill, but declined to comment until they see more details. Fletcher was the author of Chelsea’s Law, AB 1844, which passed easily last year. It puts new penalties and post-release restrictions on numerous sex offenses. The law was named for 17-year-old Chelsea King, a San Diego girl who was raped and murdered a year ago.
Her killer, John Albert Gardiner III, was a convicted sex offender, but was not classified as a sexually violent predator. He was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old girl when he was 21. He also committed another widely-reported-on murder, the 2009 slaying of 14 year-old-Amber Dubois, (the “Amber Alert” was named after a different case).
In a letter to Fletcher last year in reference to Chelsea’s law, the Sex Offender Management Board asked for some amendments to his bill that essentially would have created similar legislation to what Ammiano is now asking for.
“Not all sex offenders post the same risk over their lifetimes,” the letter stated. “In light of the state’s fiscal situation, California needs to be smart about allocating our state’s scarce resources.”