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Dialing Up a Weapon Against Molestation : Agencies: By next summer, Californians will have a hot line to identify convicted sex offenders. But is it fair?

October 05, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Its critics dismiss it as a hot line for hysteria.

Its champions say it will succeed where law enforcement has failed in protecting vulnerable children from pedophiles.

A new law that establishes the seven-digit 900 telephone number, as yet to be determined, is the most talked-about part of California's reaction to the national alarm over child molesters. The politically popular measure, which Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law last week, will enable Californians by next summer to call the number and learn whether someone--a neighbor, an employee, a youth leader or a boyfriend--has been convicted of felony child molestation. They will also have access at their local police station to photographs and ZIP codes of thousands of the most violent and habitual convicted molesters.

"I think the bill sends a message to the offender," said Assemblywoman Barbara Alby (R-Fair Oaks), who sponsored the bill. "You've been living in anonymity and no one knows you're there. By golly, now you start acting funny around kids, someone might call up about you."

Or they might take more extreme measures. Residents of other parts of the country have used such information to run pedophiles out of town.

In Washington state, which allows police to notify a community when a sex offender has settled there, the home of a convicted child rapist was burned down the day he was scheduled to move in.

In Detroit, neighbors reportedly flooded the apartment unit of a rumored child molester and tacked up signs saying "Child Molester Two Doors Down." Likewise in Louisiana, which requires just-released child molesters to notify their neighbors when they move in, signs went up naming the offender.

"If you talk to victim's parents, they all say, 'If I had only known he was a sex offender, I would have never allowed my kid to be around him,' " Louisiana Assistant Atty. Gen. Greg Murphy said in support of notification laws.

"Some are married with kids and have families," Murphy said. "One guy was a pillar of the community. He went to church every single day. He had been molesting kids for 30 years. . . . They have to gain your trust or they won't be able to be alone with your child."

California this year has sent a raft of messages to sex offenders. One new law requires them to verify their addresses every year; currently many move and do not re-register. Another establishes a special unit in the Department of Justice to monitor the whereabouts of child molesters and to perform undercover work to break up child sex rings operating through magazines and computers. Another requires registration for convicts who would otherwise have fallen through the cracks--those whose sex-related offenses were dropped during plea bargains.

In addition, a "one-strike" law could earn violent first-time child molesters sentences of 25 years to life.

*

The crackdown reflects public anguish and frustration over several brutal and tragic killings of children by parolees in recent months. Entire communities rallied for reform after the deaths of Polly Klaas, 12, who was kidnaped last year from her Petaluma bedroom, and Megan Kanka, 7, allegedly lured this summer into the New Jersey home of a neighbor. The neighbor, a convicted sex offender, was charged in Megan's death. Another victim, Ashley Estell, 7, was abducted last year from a Texas park during a soccer game; a man on parole for a sex offense was convicted of her murder last week and sentenced to death.

In the course of that investigation, police learned that another sex offender had been scheduled to work as a soccer official for the same tournament.

"We know pedophiles take jobs at fast-food places, toy stores, volunteer and charity organizations that deal with children. Women who are divorced marry men, unaware they are pedophiles who have gone on to molest their children," said Jack Stevens, a California assistant attorney general whose office initiated the telephone measure.

"If these people are not in prison, the only thing you can do is keep them from having access to children," said Stevens, who places little value on treatment programs.

There are 65,000 convicted and released sex offenders in California, of whom about 40,000 were convicted of sex crimes against children, according to the state Department of Justice. Most have received little or no treatment.

In California and 38 other states, felony offenders must register with their local law enforcement agencies upon release. Even if offenders continue to provide their current addresses over time--and in one study, three-quarters did not--Stevens said law enforcement officials are permitted to use the list only to find suspects after a crime.

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