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Last November, California voters overwhelmingly passed one of the nation's strictest laws on regulating sex offenders. The state's version of what's known as Jessica's law bans all registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a park or a school, and it requires that they'd be tracked by GPS devices for the rest of their lives.
But Judy Campbell of member station KQED reports that the law may end up causing more problems than it solves.
JUDY CAMPBELL: Ken Fitzpatrick(ph) is a supervisor with the San Leandro Division of State Parole. Agents in his office have been patrolling the neighborhood using handheld GPS devices to figure out if released sex offenders are living too close to a park or school.
Mr. KEN FITZPATRICK (Supervisor, San Leandro Division of State Parole): More than half are noncompliant. You know, a lot of work to do.
CAMPBELL: Parole agents began enforcing Jessica's law last month and found nearly 3,000 parolees in violation. Agent Fitzpatrick is driving away from an apartment complex where he helped serve notice to a sex offender, explaining that even though his offense - indecent exposure - had nothing to do with children or parks or school, he's got 45 days to move out or go back to prison. Fitzpatrick says the law is shaking up a lot of lives.
Mr. FITZPATRICK: A lot of them are working. A lot them have homes. Kind of really uprooted a lot of people. It will.
CAMPBELL: One person ends uprooting is Mike Burbank(ph) in San Diego. Burbank was recently paroled from a drug conviction. He's a registered sex offender because of an earlier conviction for attempting a lewd and lascivious act. His parole agent says he has a month to move out under Jessica's law. Most of the other men in this sex offender treatment group has been told the same thing.
Mr. MIKE BURBANK (Registered Sex Offender): None of us yet had found a place. The other guys are kind of feeling like what I'm feeling, you know. It's hopeless.
CAMPBELL: Hopeless for one because it's simply hard to find a place that will take sex offenders. Also in many urban areas, there are hardly any places not within 2,000 feet of a park, or school. Practically, every inch of San Francisco County is forbidden. And for Burbank, there's yet another problem. With the collage of mandated sex offender and drug treatment classes scattered throughout his days, Burbank says he hasn't been able to return to his job. Because of that, until now, his parole officer has helped to pay the rent.
Mr. BURBANK: He came by with a group this morning and talked to him and, you know, he said, well, I might be able to get you some rent money for this month. After that, it's over. No more money. And I told him, what are we supposed to do then? He said, well, you know, well, you might have to go to transient and, you know, just check in every day, you know. Go live under a bridge, whatever.
CAMPBELL: Parole officers say in the past, for the public safety, they'd do what they could to keep sex offender parolees from being homeless. And corrections would often pay rent to keep them housed, but that's all changing now. For one, the Department of Corrections says it can't afford to be a housing agency. And now, with so many sex offenders expected to be unable to find housing that complies with Jessica's Law, agents say they'll have to manage a homeless population. They'll assess this with the Department of Corrections.
Mr. FITZPATRICK: If they are homeless, they have to report to us everyday, and they have to sign a declaration that tells us where they spent the night. If they are being monitored by GPS systems, then they can recharge the GPS system in the parole office. If they are homeless, we see them everyday.
Ms. SUZANNE BROWN-McBRIDE(ph) (Chair, Sex Offender Management Board, California): When you house them, you have better outcomes. When people are living in a place that is appropriate and structured and supervisable(ph), you have less offending.
CAMPBELL: Suzanne Brown-McBride is an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and chairs the state's Sex Offender Management Board, recently set up to review sex offender policy. She says allowing parolees to be homeless is dangerous.
Ms. BROWN-McBRIDE: The long and the short of it is that when people are living on the streets, when they are unstable, when they are, you know, struggling with all of the challenges that homelessness provides, that can undermine their ability to not recidivate and can ultimately damage community safety.
CAMPBELL: But to State Senator George Runner, who co-authored California's Jessica's Law, the most important thing to remember is that voters don't want sex offenders near their children.
State Senator GEORGE RUNNER (Republican, California): Do I believe a parolee should be homeless? No. If a parolee cannot find a home, they probably ought to go back to prison.
CAMPBELL: And parole agents say they believe a lot of sex offenders will be sent back to prison because they couldn't find housing. Mike Burbank in San Diego says it has him and the other guys in this treatment group wondering if there's any way to avoid what looks like a long future of being locked up.
Mr. BURBANK: Let me put it this way. I have heard more likely, in the last couple of weeks, I think, people talking about just cutting and running than ever before. You know? And in all honesty, yeah, I've thought about it. I mean, I know there's ways to, you know, get a new identity and kind of just disappear and start all over again somewhere. But that still takes money, you know? So even if I haven't thought about it, I'm not in a financial position to die and be reborn somewhere else.
CAMPBELL: Jessica's Law requires sex offenders be monitored on GPS and obey the living restrictions for life. But after Mike Burbank and others like him are off parole, yet to be answered is who is going to enforce those rules and who is going to foot the massive bill to do it?
For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell.
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