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.

To numb the stress of constantly moving around, Bob says he resorted to smoking crack. That only kicked off a series of dirty drug tests, more parole violations, and more prison.

It's a common scenario. "They're sleeping outside, whatever it takes for them to stay warm, that's what they do," says Na'im Harrison, a case manager at the Northern California Service League, a nonprofit in SOMA that provides services to parolees. "They drink and they smoke crack. It makes them get through their night."

With residential rehab programs rejecting sex offenders (those would be considered residences, anyway), Bob says he began a 20-day outpatient rehab class four times. Each time was interrupted by his being sent back to prison. Once, the charge on his GPS got too low, which was another parole violation. The CDCR confirms that Bob has been charged with nine parole violations and returned to prison five times, the longest stay of which was five months.

Bob says he's trying to get himself together. He recently got certified in a city jobs program, and has been dropping off résumés. He started attending church, and has gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, the mother of his 7-year-old daughter, though he can't live with them any time soon. Yet he says he still drinks hard liquor every night to fall asleep, and feels himself getting addicted. His stress is palpable. He cries as he talks about being exhausted all the time: "They say, 'Don't be involved with the streets,' but they put you in the street. It's like dangling meat in front of a tiger. You're setting us up to fail."


San Francisco was the only county in California that voted against things being this way, rejecting Jessica's Law at the ballot box in 2006. The law draws its name from 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was raped and buried alive in two garbage bags in Florida in 2005 by a previously convicted sex offender. California's version was part of a national wave of such legislation to get tough on sex criminals. It increased mandatory sentences for sex crimes and increased the number of offenders who must be screened for being "sexually violent predators," who are sent to a state psychiatric hospital after completing their prison sentences.

Yet the initiative's vague wording left police unsure of how to implement it. It's "unlawful" for registered sex offenders to reside near schools and parks, yet the initiative doesn't specify whether such a violation should be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Numerous challenges to the law were filed in the courts, attempting to define for whom, exactly, it should be enforced. Anyone who has committed just about any sex-related crime — indecent exposure, pimping of a minor, rape, child molestation, possession of child pornography — must register. There are 88,000 registered sex offenders in California — more than could fit at one time in Candlestick Park — of whom 1,100 live in San Francisco. That would mean a lot of people in "unlawful" housing.

In February 2007, a federal judge limited the scope of the enforcement by ruling that the law could not be applied retroactively. Finally, in August 2007, nine months after voters passed Jessica's Law, CDCR sent out a memo that parole officers should begin enforcing it as a condition of parole for sex offenders released from prison after it had passed. This meant that residency limitations would apply even to those who committed their crimes before the law was enacted.

This wasn't the first time criminals had faced restrictions on where they could sleep. For years, "high-risk sex offenders" have been banned from living within half a mile of a school. Yet Jessica's Law blacked out nearly all of San Francisco other than Pier 80, AT&T Park, a couple of high-rent blocks in SOMA, and the empty Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Parolees living anywhere else were served notices to move out in 45 days.

It's unclear whether the measure's author, state Senator George Runner (R-Lancaster), saw the storm coming. "I think we knew it would be difficult for individuals to find areas to live," he told SF Weekly. "We certainly knew San Francisco was going to be a more challenging issue." Yet the president of Crime Victims United of California, a group that strongly endorsed Jessica's Law, says Runner never addressed her warnings. "We raised concern with the senator about that," Harriet Salarno says. "We voiced, 'What are you going to do with people in San Francisco?'" It was an enormous oversight. According to CASOMB's report, the number of transient sex offenders jumped 800 percent across the state between when the law passed and June 2008.

Serna points to another of the law's flaws: Although Jessica's Law restricted sex offenders from living at a residence 2,000 feet from a park or school, it didn't prevent them from sleeping on a bench in the park (one sex offender told SF Weekly he sleeps in Golden Gate Park) or at the school's front door. CDCR representatives say parole conditions cover that loophole by banning sex offenders from parks and schools. Still, the irony is not lost on parolees, who know their parole agents don't track their whereabouts at all times.

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