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O.C. sex offender law picks up support but few convictions

Nearly half of the county's cities have adopted the 'child safety zone' law that bans sex offenders from parks, beaches, playgrounds and hiking trails. Critics say it's an ineffective feel-good measure.

April 22, 2012|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times
  • Dana Point Harbor is among the beaches and parks that are off-limits to sex offenders under the ban.
Dana Point Harbor is among the beaches and parks that are off-limits to sex… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Susan Kang Schroeder ticked off the facts of the case: A man bought a 5-year-old girl from Vietnam, used her as a sex slave for more than a decade and forced her to invite over friends whom he molested during sleepovers.

"She was made to do every possible sex act," Schroeder said with a bluntness she honed as a prosecutor.

But this wasn't a jury. It was the seven members of the Huntington Beach City Council. And if the aim of the Orange County district attorney's chief of staff was to grab their attention with the story of one of the county's most notorious pedophiles, it worked.

By night's end, Huntington Beach was the latest city in Orange County to jump aboard the movement to ban registered sex offenders from parks, beaches, playgrounds and hiking trails.

In 12 months, nearly half of the county's 34 cities have adopted laws aimed at turning parks and seashores into sanctuaries for children. They are among the most aggressive sex offender laws in California.

"Every time you turn around we have some kind of problem with people, with these sexual predators molesting our kids," Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas told civic leaders in Seal Beach before they unanimously adopted the ordinance.

There are more than 100 laws on the books in various cities and counties restricting where sex offenders can live or visit, said Jack Wallace, spokesman for the state's Sex Offender Management Board.

But Orange County is one of the first counties in the state to adopt a law banning all registered sex offenders — even those who haven't been convicted of a crime against children — from going to a county beach or spending time in a county park. It carries a six-month jail sentence or a $500 fine.

So far, however, the so-called child safety zone laws have resulted in few convictions, and in some cities, zero arrests. Critics contend the ordinance, which was first adopted by county supervisors and then shopped to individual cities, is an ineffective feel-good law designed to appeal to council members who don't want to seem soft on crime.

"This seems to me much closer to a political game of Trivial Pursuit in which the district attorney simply makes up rationales … which can't be evaluated, and relies on the fact that the targets of the legislation are unpopular," said Frank Zimring, a Berkeley law professor.

Supporters defend the ban and say the number of children saved by the laws will never be known.

"The effectiveness of this law will never show up on a statistic," Schroeder said in an interview. "Because a sex offender did not show up in a park, a child did not get raped or molested."

To persuade cities to jump aboard, the district attorney's office has taken a forceful approach — sending ranking prosecutors and administrators to city council meetings and providing links to a disturbing video of Phillip and Nancy Garrido, the Northern California couple who kidnapped Jaycee Lee Dugard from a school bus stop and held her captive for 18 years.

In the video, Phillip Garrido is singing in a park with a guitar, while asking his wife whether she had a good shot of him with her video camera.

"I can see you good," she says, while filming a little girl in the playground instead.

The aggressive tactics have rubbed some the wrong way. In Huntington Beach, Councilman Keith Bohr told Schroeder he didn't think the issues were as black and white as she made them seem.

"We're just looking for more things to have to enforce because it sounds good, and if we dare question it, 'Oh, we're weak on crime or we're weak on sexual predators' and that's not the case," he said. Bohr later voted against the ordinance, a minority voice.

Other cities, such as San Juan Capistrano, have delayed voting on the ban, citing legal worries. Irvine adopted the law, but only after stripping it down so it would apply only to offenders who have been convicted of committing crimes against children.

Police have also raised concerns.

When Huntington Beach adopted the law in November, Police Chief Ken Small insisted the council remove a provision that would have allowed sex offenders to enter a park if they had successfully filed for an exemption. Small said he did not want the liability of making such decisions.

"There is no amount of investigation that can be done to guarantee that a sex offender is not going to re-offend," he told the council. "I would prefer that somebody in that situation not be carrying around an exemption in their pocket signed by me."

In May, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens told county supervisors that she could not envision "any circumstance under which I would grant permission for registered sex offenders to enter county parks."

Sure enough, of the 14 registered sex offenders who have asked for an exemption, all but one have been rejected.

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