Calif. Law Puts Sex Offenders on the Streets

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A new report finds more convicted sex offenders in California homeless because of a state law restricting where they can live. Tom Tobin, a psychologist specializing in sex offender treatment, talks with Jacki Lyden about the findings.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In 2006, the state of California passed a new law aimed at keeping sex offenders away from children. It was called Jessica's Law, and required monitoring of some of the state's over 67,000 sex offenders.

But a new report by the California Sex Offender Management Board says that the law is having some unintended consequences. It's made it impossible for many sex offenders to find homes and sent them onto the streets to live.

Joining us to discuss this report is Dr. Tom Tobin who's vice chairman of the board monitoring California's management of sex offenders.

Dr. Tobin, hello.

Dr. TOM TOBIN (Vice Chairman, California Sex Offender Management Board): Hello. It's nice to be with you.

LYDEN: So what part of Jessica's Law has made it difficult for sex offenders to find housing?

Dr. TOBIN: Well, one part of the law, and even though it's in terms of words, it's one of the very smallest parts, in terms of consequences, it's one of the most significant parts, is the part that says that no registered sex offender in California may live within 2,000 feet of a school or a park where children gather.

So those few words have had ripple consequences that some were anticipated, some were not anticipated.

LYDEN: Do you have any rough count of how many people have actually become homeless as a result of this?

Dr. TOBIN: What we know is that the number has increased from something like the low 100s to the, I believe, 400 or 500 number since the law has passed. Now, we have to remember that this law at this point is only being applied to those who were released from prison after the date the law was passed. So as that number increases month by month by month, the number to whom the law is applied increases as well. So, we're just seeing the beginnings of this, but we're seeing significant changes in the rate of homelessness.

LYDEN: So how do authorities monitor sex offenders? Is this very hard?

Dr. TOBIN: Many people think that sex offenders are monitored forever. That's not really true. As with any other person convicted of an offense, they come out of prison, and they have a limited period of formal criminal-justice supervision.

LYDEN: But isn't it always hard to monitor somebody who doesn't have an address, who's homeless?

Dr. TOBIN: Oh, absolutely, and that's really one of the main concerns, and I think from almost every direction you find people making the statement that I would rather know where a sex offender lives and be able to find him when I need to than have him homeless, transient and have no idea where he is.

LYDEN: What about the recidivism rate? I mean, how does homelessness affect that?

Dr. TOBIN: Well unfortunately, we do not have any really good studies of the recidivism rate of sex offenders as related to homelessness. What we do, however, have is research that tells us what increases the risk of a sex offender re-offending, and we know that there are some factors that are changeable, and those factors that have been identified have to do with the failure of the individual's support systems, have to do with what we could call emotional meltdown, a feeling of sometimes depression or anxiety or anger, the increased use of alcohol or other drugs. I think common sense would tell us that it's more likely to affect someone in a negative way emotionally than if that person was stable, had a support network, had a family and so forth.

LYDEN: All right. Dr. Tom Tobin is vice chairman of the California Sex Offender Management Board. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Dr. TOBIN: You're very welcome.

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