For Registered Sex Offenders, An Uphill Civil Rights Battle Registered sex offenders say laws that make their identities public and restrict where they can live violate their civil rights. But victims' advocates argue the laws are needed to keep families safe.


For Registered Sex Offenders, An Uphill Civil Rights Battle

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Registered sex offenders believe the system is broken. They say laws that restrict their lives after they've served their time are violations of their civil rights. This year, they were vindicated when the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that San Diego County restrictions of where sex offenders can live breach parolees' constitutional rights. But as Chloe Prasinos reports, victims' advocates argue that these laws exist for a good reason. First, a warning - this story contains graphic descriptions.

CHLOE PRASINOS, BYLINE: In 2010, Frank Lindsay came home after running errands and noticed his front door was wide open. He went inside to investigate.

FRANK LINDSAY: And there was a young man there in my dining room with two hammers - one in each hand.

PRASINOS: The man had found Lindsay's address on California's sex offender registry.

LINDSAY: He immediately raised the hammer in his right hand and started at me, indicating he wanted to kill me because I was a sick pervert.

PRASINOS: In 1979, Lindsay pled no contest to lewd and lascivious acts with a minor under fourteen - child molestation. Lindsay was 26. He served his time, followed by an offense-free probation, and when it was all over, he returned to life as usual. He started a business and a family. But in 1996, the federal government required states to create a public list of sex offenders. Suddenly, Lindsay was online for everyone to see.

LINDSAY: Neighbors who were very friendly quit waving. My business customers started not responding. And it just got worse and worse as my life was constricted more and more.

PRASINOS: Today, Lindsay is on the Board of California Reformed Sex Offender Laws, one of many state affiliates of a national organization that advocates for sex offenders.

JANICE BELLUCCI: So why don't we go around the room here, and if you would, just tell us your name.

PRASINOS: Every month, Janice Bellucci, an attorney and the organization's president, hosts the meeting - part support group, part information session.

MIKE: I'm Mike. I'm a registered citizen, and I'm here to learn more about the laws.

PRASINOS: It's a small group today. They sit in folding chairs arranged in a circle in a tiny one-room church in Sacramento. There are a handful of registered sex offenders - all men, all middle-aged and older. There's a mother whose 20-year-old son is accused first degree rape, and an older couple whose son was just placed on the registry. They all look to Bellucci for guidance.

BELLUCCI: Once you're on the registry, you're on the registry for the rest of your life, with very few exceptions.

PRASINOS: California has a lifetime registry, even for low-level crimes, like public nudity. The reform group wants a tiered registry, like many other states. That would mean low-risk offenders are eventually removed from the list. But in general, laws that are tough on sex offenders are hugely popular. People feel they have the right to know where offenders live, that the registry helps keep families safe. Linda Walker is the mother of Dru Sjodin and an advocate for victims' rights.

LINDA WALKER: When Dru would enter a room, she would light it up with her big, beautiful smile and her bright blue eyes.

PRASINOS: In 2003, when Dru Sjodin was 22, she was abducted in a parking lot by a complete stranger, a previously convicted sex offender. He raped her, slit her throat and left her to die in a ravine outside of Crookston, Minn. It took police five months to find her body. What happened to Sjodin is as rare as it is horrific. The Department of Justice reports that 80 percent of female sexual assault victims in Sjodin's age group knew their attacker. For juveniles, that number is even higher - 93 percent.

WALKER: I know there's the statistics, and I get that. But when people choose to do these crimes, we can't just sit back and give them more and more chances. We have to amplify the victims' voices as loudly as we can.

PRASINOS: The National Sex Offender Public Website, an online aggregator of every state registry, is named in Sjodin's memory. But policy research indicates registries may foster a false sense of security.

JILL LEVENSON: You know, really, the consensus of that research does not point in the direction of registries reducing sexual crimes or sexual recidivism.

PRASINOS: That's Dr. Jill Levenson, a clinical social worker who teaches at Barry University. She studies the ways society monitors and treats sexual criminals. According to Levenson, there are three main factors that help sex offenders successfully reintegrate into the community - employment, stable housing and good social support. Policies like the public registry and residency restrictions make it very difficult for offenders to find work and housing.

LEVENSON: When you create a situation where people believe they have nothing to lose, they're more likely to act accordingly.

PRASINOS: The California Sex Offender Management Board estimates that there are over 6,000 homeless registrants in the state, living on the street, sleeping under bridges, at rock bottom and impossible to track. For NPR News, I'm Chloe Prasinos.

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