Perverting Justice

Jessica's Law prevents paroled sex offenders from residing near schools or parks. That means they can only live one place in S.F.: on the streets.

Dozens of transients arrive by foot, on motorcycle, and in used trucks with mattresses plopped in the back. Mr. C, normally a chatterbox, keeps to himself. Even among sex offenders, there's a hierarchy of shame — child molesters at the top, a guy who exposed himself at a gas station near the bottom — and Mr. C hears others grumble that it's because of people like him that Jessica's Law passed. ("If someone did something to one of my kids, I'd probably cut his hand off," said one man who had been convicted of rape. "They need to give [child molesters] the gas chamber, in my book.")

Mr. C turns in a handwritten log of every place he has been over the last week. Parole officers will later compare it with the GPS printouts. He goes to his psychiatric appointment, and that's it. The rest of his week is less defined by where he needs to be than by where he shouldn't go.

Homelessness may seem a simple concept, but Jessica's Law has turned it into a semantic game. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) policy for parolees defines a residence as "one or more addresses at which a person regularly resides," such as a house, apartment, motel, shelter, or even vehicle. "Regularly" depends on a parole officer's review of the "totality of the circumstances," though guidelines state that when a person stays in the same place for two or more days or nights, or even for one day or night in consecutive weeks, it's starting to look like a residence — even if that "residence" is a couch or shelter bed.

So the trick each day is to avoid acquiring an "address." Some transients live in RVs on out-of-the-way lots. Others park vans in alleys or casino parking lots. The poorest sleep in doorways, beneath underpasses, or outside bus stations. Some unwritten rules show bureaucracy at its most inane: Sign up for a bed at a homeless shelter, and you're establishing a residence; fall asleep on a seat at the drop-in center at the same shelter, and you aren't.

Some parolees can't handle the restrictions. Parole officers say a couple of parolees have placed their GPS units on their desks — a blatant violation — and declared: I can't live like this. Do what you gotta do. At least in prison, they'll have a bed and three meals a day.

While no studies directly connect homelessness to reoffending, the California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) says transience is not helping. The board is an amalgam of legal, law enforcement, and medical experts under the jurisdiction of the CDCR that addresses the handling of the state's sex offenders. A 2008 CASOMB report concluded that homelessness destabilizes parolees' lives, making it harder for them to get and keep jobs, re-establish relationships with families, and reintegrate into society — all safeguards against reoffending.

In San Francisco, evidence of whether homelessness has pushed parolees into committing more sex crimes is anecdotal and inconclusive. While the CDCR declined to give information, Jim Serna, an inspector with the San Francisco Police Department's sex offender registration unit, says he could think of only two cases in which post–Jessica's Law transients have committed further sex crimes. Both were misdemeanor offenses — indecent exposure and sexual battery — though he says both were charged as felonies, given the perpetrators' priors. Yet Serna said both men had long histories of similar crimes, whether homeless or not.

Still, no one needs to look further than Bob H. to see how transience can make it hard to stay out of trouble. On a recent Tuesday morning, the charismatic 360-pound tank of a man plugs in his ankle GPS unit at a cafe across from the Hall of Justice. A gold nugget ring adorns one of his chafed fingers, and the contours of his goatee are blurred for lack of upkeep. "I'm generally a well-dressed cat," he says, "but this is what happens when you sleep in the streets."

When Bob was paroled in 2007 after serving three years for forced oral copulation with an 18-year-old, his parole agent let him switch houses every two days and remain registered as a transient. A few months later, the agent told him he had to move every day. In 2008, parole officials changed the policy, hoping to prevent people from couch-surfing to get around the residency rules. The time limit for staying in any "residence" shrank to just two hours a day, solely to charge a GPS unit. There is no limit on parolees being indoors if they're working, receiving medical care, or seeking government services.

Bob claims when the two-hour policy went into effect, his problems began. He was arrested for registering for a seven-day bed at a homeless shelter, and was sent back to prison. He says his massive frame makes it impossible for him to sleep in a flimsy chair at a shelter, so finding alternatives has become a game of cat and mouse. He has checked into psychiatric wards, declaring himself suicidal, or at a detox drop-in center, declaring himself high — both are technically considered getting treatment by a licensed provider, one of the permitted exceptions to the residency rule. Sometimes he'll snooze on BART; other nights, he'll fall asleep in a hospital emergency room before guards kick him out.

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