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Some sex offenders go untracked

A measure approved by voters last year fails to clarify how to pay for satellite monitoring and which offenders require supervision.

October 19, 2007|Michael Rothfeld | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Hundreds of California sex offenders who are supposed to be monitored for life under an initiative approved by voters last year are now unsupervised because the law does not detail who is responsible for tracking them or how to pay for enforcement.

The ambiguity in the measure, Proposition 83, commonly known as Jessica's law, could affect thousands of sex offenders returning to local communities.

State corrections officials are warning local sheriffs and police that 553 convicted sex offenders who they believe fall under Proposition 83 have already been dismissed from parole and are not being monitored. Therefore, there is no way to check whether they are complying with the law's requirement that they live more than 2,000 feet from schools and parks, and they are not being tracked by satellite for life. An additional 98 are expected to leave parole by year's end.

California Corrections Secretary James Tilton on Thursday began notifying local law enforcement agencies that the state would no longer take responsibility for placing tracking devices on the ankles of sex offenders once they leave parole.

But few if any local agencies around the state are equipped to handle the expensive and intensive satellite monitoring the law requires. And the law is not clear on whether they should have to do so.

"They may determine that they have responsibility and step up and put GPS on them, or they may determine, 'Nope, I don't need to do anything,' " Tilton said in an interview. "All I know is I no longer have jurisdiction over this population."

Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and corrections officials began returning hundreds of freed sex offenders to prison for violating the law's strict residency requirements.

The problems are surfacing in part because the initiative, approved by 70% of voters last November, does not specify many basic details of implementation, including which sex offenders require supervision, who should monitor them, how to define the restrictions on living near places where children congregate and how to pay for satellite tracking, which could ultimately cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

"It was a very badly written bill," said Tom Tobin, a Bay Area psychologist who treats sex offenders and is on a state board overseeing the law's implementation. "It's too easy to make these [initiatives] up. But to make them fit the way the world actually works is much harder."

There are an estimated 80,000 sex offenders in California, but most are not covered by Proposition 83 because their crimes predated it.

Nearly a year after the law passed, even the state has not yet fully outfitted all the sex offenders under its supervision with satellite tracking, with only 2,000 wearing the devices out of more than 4,000 offenders who are required by law to have it. State corrections officials say they will have to ultimately monitor 8,000 who are still on parole at any given time, at a cost of more than $25 million a year, not including the expense of additional parole agents.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke said she doubted that local government would be able to afford it.

"It's going to be a tremendous burden," she said. "The sheriff has very little ability right now. He's trying to expand his electronic monitoring, but my understanding is that they just don't have the people to follow up on it."

But Sheriff Lee Baca said he thought the task was manageable. He said the department already has a program to monitor low-level offenders with ankle bracelets and could use that to monitor sex offenders.

"There's no question that we have to do it," he said. "This is going to get expensive, which could in effect cause us to have to continue to find ways to fund this, but I have no doubt that this is what the public wants."

While officials are grappling with how to enforce Proposition 83, they said sex offenders will remain on their radar because of Megan's law, which requires offenders to register with law enforcement. Their addresses and photos are posted on the Internet.

As enforcement of the law has played out, there have been other bumps. Critics contend that the law's requirements are so strict that offenders may not be able to find anywhere to live. Indeed, state officials have allowed those who have declared themselves homeless to avoid arrest for violating the 2,000-foot residency restriction. So far, nearly 200 have become homeless because of the law, state officials said.

In a letter Thursday to the state's Sex Offender Management Board, which is overseeing the law's implementation, Tilton said that "clarification is urgently needed" within 60 days on who should enforce the law after sex offenders are dismissed from parole.

"There are quite a few of these issues that people are trying to get to the bottom of who's responsible for what," said Suzanne Brown-McBride, chairwoman of the state sex offender board. "There's no magic answer."

As the state has begun discussions with local agencies about what do to next, some have offered different interpretations of whom the law covers.

Some district attorneys have said that only those offenders convicted after the law's passage are included; Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), who co-authored the initiative, said Thursday that only those who began parole after the day it was passed are covered, and not those who recently violated their parole as the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation has decided. Although there are several ongoing court challenges to the law, those questions have not yet been settled.

Runner said he believed that none of the questions were insurmountable and that the legislation could be revised if needed.

"Oftentimes, there are ambiguities that have to be dealt with," he said. "You go ahead and see what needs to be done and you clarify, you work out, you make it happen."

michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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