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California Struggles to House Sex Offenders
State corrections officials responded to the passage of Jessica’s Law by providing financial assistance to an increasing number of sex offenders who, unable to locate or afford scarce housing, would otherwise be left homeless, difficult to track and thus more likely to reoffend.
The cost to house sex offenders in California has increased significantly since Jessica’s Law was enacted, with the state dishing out almost $22 million in 2008 to place hundreds of paroled sex offenders in apartments and motel rooms – an almost ten-fold increase since mid-2006, before the law was passed. Although the housing assistance is considered a loan, few offenders are able to pay it back.
Officials have sometime put sex offenders in locations they later learned were prohibited under the vaguely-written law (which does not define “park” or specify whether to measure the prohibited 2,000-foot zone by travel distance or by GPS measurements). In one case, parole officials in El Cerrito housed sex offenders at a Budget Inn that was within 700 feet of a park with a playground, until they realized they were in violation of Jessica’s Law.
In the face of an unprecedented state budget crisis, corrections officials, noting with unintended irony that they are “not in the housing business,” have announced plans to sharply scale back the housing payments and return to a practice of providing only limited, short-term assistance. No doubt, one consequence of the state’s money-saving efforts will be to increase the already-swelling ranks of homeless sex offenders.
In the two years subsequent to the passage of Jessica’s Law, the number of paroled sex offenders in California registered as “transient” ballooned from just 88 to over 1,250. Due to higher costs resulting from increased recidivism and re-incarceration of homeless sex offenders, little money is likely to be saved by the state’s decision to limit housing assistance.
According to a December 2008 report by the California Sex Offender Management Board, “Residential instability leads to unstable employment and lower levels of social support. Unstable employment and lack of social support lead to emotional and mental instability. Emotional and mental instability breaks down the ability to conform and leads to a greater risk of committing another sex crime.”
“I think it’s reasonable we provide that housing on a temporary basis, but we’re not going to pay for housing indefinitely,” stated Scott Kernan, undersecretary for adult operations for California’s prison system. “I’m not saying we’re going to put them homeless. But if you continue to pay for housing, the offender has no incentive to go out and find other hous-ing.” Assuming, of course, that any suitable and affordable housing is available to be found.
Although both state and federal courts have ruled that Jessica’s Law cannot be applied retroactively to offenders who committed crimes before the law was enacted [See: PLN, July 2007, p.27], Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration has chosen to adopt a broad, tough-on-crime interpretation of the measure, applying it to all registered sex of-fenders who return to prison for any reason. Of the California parolees who qualify for the 2,000-foot ban imposed by Jessica’s Law, it is estimated that over 90 percent committed their crimes before the law was passed; thus, an expansive application of the law imposes a significant drain on the state’s already overburdened budget.
The costs for re-incarcerating sex offenders who violate the stringent provisions of Jessica’s Law are expensive, too, but that hasn’t stopped strict enforcement of the law. Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement (SAFE) task forces have been formed in partnership with local and state police agencies to ensure compliance by sex offenders, including address verifications and searches of parolees’ homes. “Sex offenders need to know we’re watching them,” said Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith.
PLN has previously reported on problems associated with finding appropriate housing for sex offenders in California. [See: PLN, April 2008, p.30; Jan. 2007, p.24]. Recently, there has been an increased focus on sex offenders following the high-profile arrests of Phillip Garrido and his wife for kidnapping Jaycee Dugard, 11, in 1991 and sexually abusing her over an 18-year period. Garrido was a registered sex offender on parole supervision at the time of his arrest on August 26, 2009.
California has approximately 83,000 registered sex offenders.
Sources: Contra Costa Times, New York Times, Mercury News, www.casomb.org
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