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.

"When I was living in Pacific Heights in a box, I was, like, a block away from a school," said one sex offender who asked not to be named. "I'm on GPS, but I could go rape a kid and they wouldn't know about it until three days later."

While people debate the efficacy of the residency rules, state law enforcement agencies are waiting to see whether the California Supreme Court throws those rules out. In October 2007, four unnamed parolees filed a habeas corpus writ asking to be exempted from the residency restrictions. Three of them faced having to move out of their homes within days or be arrested on parole violations; one of them was already homeless. One San Francisco petitioner, E.J., who lived with his wife and their four children under 12, had been denied a transfer by the parole department to another county where he could find housing.

The parolees' attorneys argue the law is unconstitutional and overly broad, since it excludes sex offenders from living in entire cities and keeps those whose crimes didn't involve children from living near schools and parks. Then there's the fact that many now subject to residency limitations are on parole for new, non-sex-related crimes, which is true of the petitioners in the case. For instance, S.P. was on parole for knowingly receiving stolen property, and K.T. had been most recently convicted of felony grand theft.

At a Supreme Court hearing on the case in November, Ernest Galvan, one of the attorneys representing the four petitioners, argued the law violates the ex post facto statute, which refers to the fact that no one can be punished by a law that didn't exist when they committed their crime. He argued that, at the most, the enforcement of the statute should be limited to those who had committed sex crimes after the law passed.

Ken Mennemeier, the lawyer for the CDCR, contends that the law is constitutional since it doesn't restrict whom the offenders can live with, merely where they can live. He argues that no federal authority has established the right of convicted sex offenders to live wherever they want. Moreover, he says the residency restrictions are a regulatory measure, not a punishment, so the ex post facto law doesn't even apply.

Galvan disagreed. He told SF Weekly that it seems like medieval banishment: "You're condemned to be a wraith walking the streets."

After dusk, the Jessica's Law wraiths start to settle on a shadowy street across from high-end condos a block from the Caltrain depot in SOMA. You could call it an encampment. On any given evening, up to a dozen sex offenders find it a safe place to sleep with minimal interference from law enforcement.

On a Tuesday night in mid-December, the men hung out before heading to sleep in their vans and tents: smoking cigarettes, one popping open a 24-ounce can of Steel Reserve. They grumbled about Jessica's Law, and one announced that his pee jug — an empty bottle many keep handy to take a leak without having to go in the street — had been stolen.

But the main topic of discussion that night was that Monroe had gone back to jail. He always slept in a sleeping bag under a blue tarp on the sidewalk, snuggling with a radio tuned to soft rock on KBLX to break up the solitude. His GPS unit had broken or fallen off — the story was unclear — and he hadn't immediately called his parole agent as the rules required.

It was an all-too-common cautionary tale about how easy it is to get locked up again. Jessica's Law is "inhuman," said one man who rolled a suitcase up to a rank-smelling van he said he was "renting" from another parolee who got sent back to jail. "But I'd rather be inhuman out here than human in there" — "there" meaning prison.

The men have learned to navigate the rules, and sometimes how to work around them. As one put it, "I gotta play the game with 'em [the parole department] to keep 'em happy." Another says he found a "loophole, but they're trying to close it on me." Since parolees are allowed to travel within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco, he sleeps at his wife's house in the East Bay for two nights, and returns to the city on the third. (Parole agents told SF Weekly that isn't allowed.)

The block these men are staying on is a loophole, too, though more of an official one. It's too close to a park or school for them to live indoors, but according to a parole department memo released in July, transient encampments, bridges, and bus stops are not "residences." The distance restrictions don't apply.

Still, the parole officers don't particularly like the offenders clustering here. One parolee said that he, like many others, had been told to move on. Technically, it's a violation for parolees to hang out together unless they are receiving social services. And they're definitely forbidden to live in the same residence (two sex offender parolees were busted this fall for sharing an RV). But they claim they've been given bizarre instructions on how to bend that rule as well. One parole agent told them to stay 6 or 7 feet away from the next guy. They don't always obey. They talk to each other face-to-face, and one transient said he and another man sleep at opposite ends of his 6-foot-wide tent.

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