Evaluating California’s Sex Offender Laws
Thursday, March 25, 2010
In the wake of the rape and murder of 17-year old Chelsea King, some people are calling for tougher laws to regulate sex offenders. Others say the laws we have aren't working. We look at what's being proposed, what laws are in place and what needs to change.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Standing before a podium in Mira Mesa this week, the mother of Chelsea King made a promise. She said she’s now committed to do all she can to protect other mothers and daughters from the incomprehensible nightmare she’s been living through. That nightmare, of course, is the death of 17-year old Chelsea King, who was raped and murdered near Lake Hodges last month. Convicted sex offender John Gardner has been charged with that crime. San Diego Police say Gardner is also the focus of their investigation into the death of 14-year-old Amber Dubois. Both of Chelsea King’s parents joined state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher at that podium this week to announce the creation of proposed legislation called “Chelsea’s Law.” This hour, we’ll be speaking with a panel of guests about California’s laws against sex offenses, whether new ones are really needed, and how those laws are being implemented. My first guest is Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of California’s 75th District, which includes the city of Poway. And good morning, Assemblyman Fletcher, thanks for joining us this morning.
NATHAN FLETCHER (California State Assembly, 75th District): Hi. Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for having me on.
CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What can California do to keep violent sexual predators off our streets? Have we been too lenient or do you think severe laws run the risk of being counterproductive? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. You can also go online to post your comment, KPBS.org/thesedays. Assemblyman Fletcher, tell us, what is Chelsea’s Law?
FLETCHER: Well, what we’re doing, the actual policy of Chelsea’s Law will – is currently in the process of being developed and probably will in the next few weeks. We came into this with just the basic understanding I think everyone has. This is absolutely every parent’s worst nightmare, and in the case of Gardner there’s a lot of questions. I mean, there’s a lot of kind of glaring gaps or holes or systems where people don’t understand how someone who had had a history of violently assaulting a child, who had had such a dire psychological warning, who’d had multiple parole violations, could still be out there. And so in the aftermath of the case what we did in conjunction with the King family, we launched a full review of all of the laws on the books and that’s now entering its fourth week of every day going through what are the laws, what are the new ones that have been passed, where were their breakdowns in implementation. You know, in a lot of instances, you see stringent laws on the books but they aren’t being fully implemented. How do we better prioritize on the high risk, the most likely to reoffend. And so doing a full review of everything that’s out there to come up with a thorough and thoughtful but very real attempt to have a criminal justice system that better deals with the sexually violent predators who go after our children and are most likely to reoffend. And that’s where we are now, and so we’ve narrowed our focus to three general areas and we’re going to continue to refine these ideas with a large group of stakeholders. One area is parole reform, we can see that there’s some problems in the parole system particularly as it relates to Gardner. The second is, is a focus, a lot of existing laws focus on where sex offenders live. You know, you can’t live within 2000 feet of a park or a school but there’s nothing that says you can’t go there all day, you can’t sit in the park all day, so we’re kind of looking at kind of maybe for the high risk, for the most dangerous, the creation of safe zones. And then the third is the sentencing. What are the current sentencing guidelines on the books and are there ways we can make them simpler or easier or give district attorneys more tools to better protect our kids? And I just feel, and I think a lot of people do, that this, you know, this issue of public safety and protecting our children has to be at the forefront, one of the most important things that a state government does in having a system that works.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Assemblyman Fletcher, in reading about some of the proposals or some of the things you’re looking at in creating this new law, there was the idea that you want a one-strike law against violent sexual predators.
CAVANAUGH: Isn’t – Doesn’t California already have a one-strike law against many kinds of sex offenses?
FLETCHER: They do and it depends on what you count and so what we’ve said is what we’re taking a look at doing is strengthening some of the existing provisions. And I don’t think, Maureen, for the most dangerous, for someone who violently sexually assaults a child, I don’t think that’s a person you can rehabilitate. I think that crosses into a level that you can’t fix. So for those, for those most dangerous, the highest priority, the most high risk, putting in place something that really keeps them there for a long time. Right now, the one-strike provision it’s a series of qualifying and aggravating factors and circumstances and it doesn’t always get you to a truly life, no parole, type situation. And so we’re looking at how that would work. How can we do it in a way that makes it work? And we’re talking to judges and we’re talking to DAs and we’re talking to attorneys, you know, to make sure we do something that’s meaningful, that’s real, that can be implemented that actually protects our kids.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, we have seen this very sad story unfold before. We have the tragic death of a child, a sexual molestation and then a move by the parents to enact another law.
CAVANAUGH: And then we have Megan’s Law and Jessica’s Law. But do we have any idea whether or not these laws are actually working to make us safer?
FLETCHER: Well, one of the areas we’re exploring that I should count in there as a category is this idea of data collection and retention because as I go through and read study after study and I read analysis, it’s hard to get a real handle on exactly even how many offenders are out there. How often they reoffend. Where do they go? And so I think it’s a really important tool for policymakers to have a better data collection system so that you can make decisions, you know, based on those, and so that’s a component that we’re looking at adding, is how do we better retain the data in an effort to make decisions, you know, that best protect children. And so that’s a fair question.
CAVANAUGH: You know, there’s – Everybody can understand the emotional pull of wanting to do anything possible…
CAVANAUGH: …to avoid another tragedy like this but we are living in a reality where the State of California has a huge budget deficit and I’m wondering if when you craft this legislation you’re going to be thinking about how actually will the state pay for increased monitoring or more people in jail for longer sentences.
FLETCHER: Well, I think the kind of starting point and then I’ll kind of go into it, the State of California, even in a budget deficit, still has $85 billion, and I’ve got to believe in $85 billion we can find enough money to have a prioritized system that fully implements everything we can do to protect kids from sexually violent predators. So I just think there’s a lot of things the state does – We just had a hearing a couple weeks ago, you know, where we spent $45 million on new furniture for state workers. I mean, we have enough money, it’s just a question of making it a priority and a commitment. And then I also think and one of the things we’re focusing on is how do we prioritize our resources and our efforts on those most dangerous sex offenders, on those who are the greatest risk to our children, the ones like Gardner where you’re told he will reoffend, he will hurt children, he’s callous, he has no remorse, and making sure the system’s designed to dedicate resources to those.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of California’s 75th District, including the City of Poway. And we’re talking about the proposed law announced this week, Chelsea’s Law, to tighten up restrictions and in a multiple number of what Assemblyman Fletcher talks about as gaps in existing laws against sexual offenders. And I’m wondering, you said earlier that it is your strong belief that there are no – there’s no way to treat violently – violent sexual predators, so I would assume that there will not be any treatment programs that are a requirement of this proposed law?
FLETCHER: Well, we’re focusing, like I said, sentencing, parole, GPS, kind of where they can go. I mean, I think by prioritizing on the worst ones, the most heinous ones, I just don’t believe those type folks, I don’t believe there’s any treatment program you could put John Gardner in that’s going to make him come out and not be a risk to our children.
CAVANAUGH: And do you think that by imposing a very stiff, like life without parole on a first time sexual – sex offender, you think that perhaps prosecutors are sometimes reluctant to use a law like that?
FLETCHER: Well, I don’t know. I mean, you’d have to ask prosecutors. I think – and we haven’t finalized what the exact proposal will be so, I mean, there’s a number of ideas we’re looking at in terms of, you know, how to put in place something that will be a tool for prosecutors to use and will give them every option when they think it’s appropriate. And that’s what I think our obligation is. I mean, I think we have – you know, this case has exposed some kind of glaring gaps in the system and a number of laws have been put in place since then but there’s still some overlap and I think there’s some areas for needed reform and I think at the end of the day you have to give the law enforcement community every possible tool for them to do what they think is in the best interest of our children and public safety.
CAVANAUGH: As part of this law, do you envision any kind of restrictions against plea bargaining for people charged with sex offenses?
FLETCHER: No, I don’t.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. One last question, if I could, Assemblyman Fletcher, it’s been said that John Gardner, Chelsea’s alleged killer, violated his parole, he should’ve gone back to jail but didn’t.
CAVANAUGH: Are you seeing anything specific develop in how this new Chelsea’s law might change that?
FLETCHER: Well, there’s a couple things. We’ve had – and dealing with the Department of Corrections has been a very, very frustrating endeavor because one of the first things we asked for was a copy of the parole record in an attempt – there’s nothing we can do, as much as anybody would give anything to have this, there’s nothing we can do to bring Chelsea back but we – it’s hard to identify where the system broke down if you can’t take a look at the process. So we had asked for the parole record and we got kind of strung on and then we found out they had destroyed the parole record. And so step one was immediately stopping the destruction of parole records. I don’t know why you would destroy any parole record. And so the governor actually stepped in and ordered Corrections to stop that. And then what we got was portions of the record that had been transferred to the central file, and what we found is Gardner had seven violations of his parole while he was there and any one of those seven, he could’ve been sent back for evaluation or revocation and he would’ve been evaluated under some more stringent guidelines that had passed since his initial conviction. And so any one of those seven could’ve sent him back and he could still potentially be incarcerated today. And so what we’re looking at in the parole area is a greater prioritization on the most dangerous offenders, the most likely to reoffend. And then there’s a real question, is the Corrections bureaucracy the best and most independent entity to make decisions on these types of violations and whether they should go back? Because they’re charged on one hand with reducing inmate population and on the other hand with ensuring public safety, and so we’ve asked Corrections while this review happens and we look for ways to improve the system, to immediately send sex offender violations for dangerous sex offenders that violate parole to the Parole Board Review, it’s an independent board, because we think they’re a little bit more objective decision maker in terms of who should be revoked and who should remain on parole.
CAVANAUGH: Assemblyman Fletcher, thank you for speaking with us this morning. I really appreciate it.
FLETCHER: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of California’s 75th District about a new proposed law named after Chelsea King. And we will continue to talk about the California laws against sex offenses with my new guests, and take your calls. We’re going to take an early break and when we return we’ll be taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And we’re talking about California’s laws against sex offenses, whether new ones are really needed and how those laws are being implemented. I’d like to welcome two new guests to the panel. Professor Sheldon Zhang is the head of the Sociology Department at San Diego State University. He’s studied the state’s parole system. And, Professor Zhang, welcome.
SHELDON ZHANG (Chairman, Sociology Department, San Diego State University): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And Dr. Jay Adams is media representative for the California Coalition on Sex Offending. She has treated and evaluated sex offenders for more than 30 years. Dr. Adams, good morning.
DR. JAY ADAMS (Media Representative, California Coalition on Sex Offending): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 if you’d like to join our conversation, or you can post your comments online at KPBS.org/thesedays. Professor Zhang, I wanted to get your reaction. We just finished speaking with Assemblyman Fletcher about what he’s found as some gaps and some problems with the state’s parole system as it comes – as it affects sex offenders, and I’m wondering what your reaction to that is.
ZHANG: Well, Maureen, there’s actually – you can say a lot about the imperfections of our parole system but having looked at the parole system for – on and off for over ten years, and I also know that our parole agents and parole systems have actually tried and struggled to deal with all these various violent offenders. Parole supervision is a rather imprecise activity. You know, it’s one way if you look the data, you can see some patterns and you can sort of figure out who are the most likely reoffenders, who are likely to reoffend and – versus who are less likely to reoffend but if you want to zero in and predict who specifically will actually reoffend, that’s a very difficult task to do, and you can ask any sociologist or psychologist and to make such predictions and they will tell you they cannot do that. I just want to backtrack a little bit with regard to some of the things that Assemblyman Fletcher mentioned. Currently, Parole does not decide who can get off parole, who can get on – remain on parole. There’s actually – it is the determined by the Parole Board of Hearings. It is a group of independent commissioners appointed by the governor and they make decisions. So the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in acronym CDCR, cannot just on its own dismiss or discharge any parolees.
CAVANAUGH: So creating another independent panel, what you’re saying is we already have an independent panel…
ZHANG: We have an independent panel…
ZHANG: …that is independent. They make those decisions. And for parole agents to discharge somebody, they’ll have to get the permission from the commissioners and they do have a Parole Board of Hearings. But there are some patterns I want to share with you, some statistics. My partner, Bob Roberts, at CCSU San Marcos just did a analysis for me to prepare me for this interview. In California, overall we know that the sex offenders are supervised much more closely than non-sex offenders. They are revoked at a much higher rate than non-sex offenders.
CAVANAUGH: In other words, sent back to prison.
ZHANG: Yes, they’re sent back to prison at a higher rate than non-sex offenders. Sex offenders have always been placed on special caseloads. What we call special caseloads is they have – parole agents have fewer cases compared to other non-sex offender caseloads and they also have GPS so they’re watched much more closely. But on the other hand, we also know that statistically that sex offenders have higher propensity to reoffend. For instance, when they do reoffend, we also know they are about three times as likely to reoffend – to commit offenses against person. In other words, they will reoffend on violent offenses. And if you look at sex offenses specifically, they’re about 30 times as high as non-sex offenders to commit new sex offenses for sex offenders. So we know statistically sex offenders have a higher propensity to reoffend, to reoffend against persons and also to reoffend on new sex charges, so in other words they are statistically, I mean, almost with much greater statistical certainty that they will reoffend and when they do reoffend the offenses are more likely – most likely to be against person and also sexual offenses.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you something, though, beyond the statistics, if I may, Professor, and that is you have probably been keeping up with the news reports of the – the chronicle of the accused offender in this case, John Gardner, and how he was not basically sent back for parole violations, sent back to do extra prison time. When you’ve read these – this chronicle of – this personal chronicle of his relationship with the parole officers, do you see, well, they should’ve done that? Or do you see that there was a problem in the way his case was handled?
ZHANG: You know, from hindsight, of course, we can make a lot of statements about what should have been done or could’ve been done. But if you look at the overall pattern, it is a rather tricky thing to determine when a technical violation – Well, in California, I mean, there are two ways you can go back to prison. I mean, there’s several ways but you can go back to prison based on technical violations or you can go back to prison based on new offenses. And sometimes when you get arrested, it is easier to just file a parole revocation and send you back to prison as opposed to go through an entire court process and get a new commitment or a new conviction. But the technical violations alone is tricky, you know, especially with these offenders. With the parole agents handling so many caseloads and they have to determine on the relatively short time period whether they want to hold sex offenders or any parolees accountable for every technical violations. You know, what all this boils down, is the amount of resources and the money you can invest or ingest into parole supervision. If you want parole agents to hold sex offenders – For instance, let’s just take the sex offenders, for example. If you want to hold all sex offenders accountable for every technical violation, you’re going to have a system meltdown because there will be – it’s so easy to capture some technical violations and if you want to send every technical violations back to prison you essentially probably can have 90, 100% return rate. So then what’s the point of having parole?
CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s go to the phones. Andrew is calling us from Ocean Beach. Good morning, Andrew. Welcome to These Days.
ANDREW (Caller, Ocean Beach): Yeah, I just wanted to recommend how…
CAVANAUGH: Andrew, can’t hear you. Could you get up closer to your phone, please.
ANDREW: Yeah, see I – Yeah, I just wanted to recommend how – I know a lot of guys are out there just want to probate people on probation and stuff. And I just think that, you know, we’re spending a lot of money on petty crimes like, you know, people smoking pot or riding their bikes, you know, or jaywalking. We spend so much time on petty problems and we need to really focus on these harsh offenders. You know, we’re – that’s where our money is and we have a lot of power. We have all the money and technology, it’s all there but we’re just having it spent in all the wrong places.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you for your call, Andrew. I appreciate it. We are taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. I want to introduce Dr. Jay Adams into the conversation. She is the media representative for the California Coalition on Sex Offending. What is this coalition, Dr. Adams?
DR. ADAMS: This is a statewide group which is comprised of people from clinical backgrounds, people who treat sex offenders, law enforcements (sic), we have some members who are parole agents and probation officials, some attorneys, and people who administer polygraph tests, so we have a wide range of membership of different types of professionals who deal with sex offenders in different capacities and we’re a statewide organization.
CAVANAUGH: And you have compiled sort of a list of what you say are misconceptions people have about sex offenders. What are they?
DR. ADAMS: Well, I’m not sure exactly what list you’re referring to, Maureen, but I think that I could really appreciate Assemblyman Fletcher’s frustration as far as getting reliable information and I think that we, just a few minutes ago, had an example of it in the sense that Dr. Zhang’s data is totally different from the data that we have. And I really want to talk to him about that. Our data says that the vast majority of sexual offenses are committed by people who have not been detected before, by first time offenders. And that, when I say the vast majority, I mean almost 75%. And our data also says that sex offender recidivism is actually much lower than it is for the general population of prisoners. And so I’m now at a loss as to try to understand the divergence here between our two sets of data.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I think we’re seeing some of the problems that people are having in trying to write laws…
DR. ADAMS: Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …and trying to enforce laws when it comes to this very complicated issue. Now I know, Dr. Adams, your group recently issued a position paper on California’s residency restriction laws. What did you find out about that?
DR. ADAMS: All right, I think that one of the major issues here is that the history of sex offender laws both in the – throughout the country and in California has largely been a history of these type of laws being passed in reaction to some kind of horrendous crime. And that was why I was very, very happy to hear Assemblyman Fletcher say that he is undertaking a thorough review of the laws that are already there because I’m not convinced that laws that are passed in the heat of people’s reactions to something as horrible as this are always well thought out and really based on evidence and on research. And specifically with respect to the residency restrictions, and I would encourage people to visit our website which is www.ccoso.org and they can get our residency restriction paper there. The – Specifically, our findings have been that these – the residency restriction laws have not really accomplished what it was hoped that they would accomplish. And you mentioned in your introduction that there was a question as to whether possibly they had been counterproductive and what we’ve found is that as sex offenders are driven more and more underground and as they’re separated more and more from their support systems, from their families, from their ability to get a job, from their ability to have access to treatment, that actually they become more and more problematic and more likely to reoffend and that we don’t believe, from our research, that where someone lives is actually very highly related to their offending because the vast majority of sex offenses are committed among people who know each other. And in – what’s happened as a result of the residency restrictions is that a lot of sex offenders have been forced into homelessness and as a result of that, they are now giving addresses as transients and this has made it much, much harder for Parole to keep track of them. And the state of Iowa had a situation like this where they began to realize that they were having – they had, I think, something like a doubling in the number of offenders whose location they didn’t know because these men had no addresses, and they also noticed that because of these severe sanctions and restrictions, family members were becoming less likely to report crimes so in Iowa it actually got to the point where the district attorneys requested to the legislature that they repeal the residency restriction laws but that hasn’t happened, I think largely because of public opinion…
DR. ADAMS: …that legislators are afraid to take that on as an issue. But it does appear to, at least to our organization, and you can read about it in our paper, that these, the residency restriction laws specifically have been counterproductive.
CAVANAUGH: Counterproductive. Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 or you can post your comment online, KPBS.org. And let’s hear from Pam in Encinitas. Good morning, Pam. Welcome to These Days.
PAM (Caller, Encinitas): Good morning. My comment is, as a mother of two girls who I now can’t let walk to school, if there’s no possibility of parole, does that – any evidence that that increases the likelihood of an offender killing their victims if they know they’re not going to have a possibility of parole?
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call. Have you done any studies on that, Dr. Adams?
DR. ADAMS: I can’t speak to studies on that but I think that that raises a really interesting and important question that the more desperate you make people and the more alienated you make them from society, do you, in fact, increase their likelihood of violence? Do you foster the notion that I have nothing to lose, that I’ve committed this crime now and the sanctions are so severe – maybe by – I can protect myself by killing the victim. There’s no studies on that that I am aware of, and I think that that is a real problem. I think it’s really important for us to distinguish between people who commit acts of violence including sex offenses that are impulsive and people who commit acts of sex offenses that are quite planned out and that indicate an underlying deviant kind of attraction, which I think that John Gardner is somebody whose offenses, as far as we know, were rather planned out, that he stalked victims, that he was looking for particular types of victims. I also think it’s important with this case, at least from the little bit that I’ve read about it on the internet, to distinguish between what type an offender this man probably is. This is not really a man who’s attracted to children. This is a man probably for whom sex and violence are fused and he’s very likely a sexual sadist who targeted a child or targeted a younger person because he felt like he could control that person more easily than an adult woman. But he’s not really a pedophile or a child molester.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Miller is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Miller. Welcome to These Days.
MILLER (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. How you doing?
CAVANAUGH: Just fine. Thank you for calling.
MILLER: I thank you for having me. I want to say this is, you know, pretty bad and I feel for the families who have experienced the loss. I can’t imagine what it was. I just – I did see – You know, I do see children walking to school and I just, you know, can’t help but to think about it every time I go to work.
MILLER: I would – I want – did want to echo the most recent guest, however, because I think it’s appropriate to make sure that this person is guilty and you find out that there were actual flaws in whatever system before people impulsively try to make changes because this is going to have a precedence in, you know, the – there’s a pattern, I think, in the state, because I know the state of like making laws and putting more people in jail as a solution to something and it’s kind of like a false closure, I think, people try to get with that. So I hope that due diligence is sought to prevent that from, you know, preventing a cycle of ineffective laws and such that you…
CAVANAUGH: Miller, thanks. Thank you. Thank you very much for that comment. We have a guest joining us on the phone right now. He’s Gerald Fineman, a Deputy District Attorney for Riverside County. Mr. Fineman, good morning.
GERALD FINEMAN (Deputy District Attorney, Riverside County, California): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: We wanted to speak with you because we know that Riverside County uses the one-strike law that’s already on the books to deal with sex offenders in your county and you use it with a certain frequency. How has that done, Mr. Fineman?
FINEMAN: Well, the California legislature has provided prosecutors with various tools to attack sexual predators and make sure they get incarcerated for life. Our county is very diligent in making sure that we implement those laws whenever they’re applicable and they allow us to put sex offenders away for life sentences kind of akin to as if a murderer goes away for life.
CAVANAUGH: And do – as I – I assume that you use those laws often? I mean, you don’t hesitate to use them.
FINEMAN: Correct. It’s pretty frequent that we use them. Penal Code Section 1192.7 actually directs prosecutors to utilize these laws when we have the evidence to prove the offense.
CAVANAUGH: Now I don’t want to make the false – I don’t want to give the false impression that San Diego County does not use this one-strike law, indeed they have – there have been people prosecuted by it. But in Riverside County, I’m wondering, as you review the number of times you’ve used the one-strike law for sex offenders in your county, do you think California needs a new law, a new law that would toughen the one-strike law?
FINEMAN: The one-strike law could be expanded to allow it to include all sex offenses. There has to be a qualifying sex offense in order for us to implement the one-strike law. So, for example, it is a child molestation in the state of California if someone would touch a knee of a child under the age of 14 for a sexual purpose. That’s not the same as someone who commits sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 14 or a sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 10, but a sexual intercourse under the age of 10 would be subject to prosecution under the one-strike law whereas the simple touching would not.
CAVANAUGH: I certainly understand your point and so, Mr. Fineman, I take from your answer you think this law we have now is adequate.
FINEMAN: It’s very good. It could be broader that could give prosecutors more discretion in when to charge it but the current law does provide us tools to attack sex offenders.
CAVANAUGH: I know you’re on your way to somewhere, Mr. Fineman. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
FINEMAN: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Gerald Fineman. He is a Deputy District Attorney for Riverside County. We have to take a short break and when we return, we will continue to talk about how California law handles sex offenses and be taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Professor Sheldon Zhang. He is the head of the Sociology Department at San Diego State University. He’s studied the state’s parole system. And Dr. Jay Adams, media representative of the California Coalition on Sex Offending. She’s treated and evaluated sex offenders for more than 30 years. We’re talking about California’s laws about sex offenses and whether they need to be tightened. 1-888-895-5727, is our number. Let’s take a call right off the bat from Archie in Rancho Penasquitos. Good morning, Archie. Welcome to These Days. Hi, Archie, could you turn your radio down? Okay, we’ll go back to Archie in just a moment or two. You know, I wanted to ask you, Sheldon, Professor Zhang, if I may…
ZHANG: That’s okay.
CAVANAUGH: …are we applying the best of what we know to our laws against sexual offenders? Are we applying the data and the research? Or do you think we’re reacting more out of our fear?
ZHANG: At this point I think we are because the passion runs high now and we are probably, yes, responding more to our emotions now as opposed to what we can actually do. California does look over or supervise sex offenders very closely. Can we supervise them even more closely? Yes. And should we supervise them even more closely? Probably yes. But the main thing, the bottom line is, if we choose as a collective decision, if we choose to increase our – the supervision intensity or penalty we have to have committed resources. In other words, we cannot just pass a law and leave it there and hoping something will happen down the line. I mean, look at three strikes law. We passed a lot of very draconian laws in California. The consequence is that we have a huge prison population. Now we ran out of money, we – I mean, as a state, we invest far more money in the correctional system than we do in education. So then, you know, that’s the consequences of all these laws being passed without any mandate on revenue. So any time – So and I hope this will be part of the discussion if we want to initiate a new law or tighten the current laws on sex offenders, we have to ask our lawmakers to think carefully on where do you – how are you going to intend to fund these things down the line.
ZHANG: You know, you can ask parole agents, you know, on the one-on-one cases, you can tell parole, our parole system is watch sex offenders on the one-on-one caseload. Every one parole agent’s assigned one caseload, I mean, one case then they can do it, too. As long as you can come up with the money, they will do it.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Dr. Adams, you know, it may very well be that sometimes we don’t use the best data to make these laws but the fear is real and the threat is real. We found that out here in San Diego just recently. So what do we do to get smarter about this?
DR. ADAMS: Well, again, I would go back to the whole idea that Assemblyman Fletcher talked about, about making a careful review before we pass laws in the throes of totally understandable fear and horror at these crimes, that we really use the scientific information that we have. And we do have now in the last 20 years, we do have a lot of science about sex offenders. One of the things these laws, some of these laws, have done is to promote research, and we have learned more about this population. So one thing I would say is that we try to tone down the drumbeat of the constant things that you hear in the media, the TV shows that talk about sex offenders in ways that are totally distorted and untrue, and that we really try to take a step back and say, okay, what do we know, what can we learn from cases where we’ve failed, and that we don’t enact laws impulsively and just based on fear because we’re very likely to go astray there.
CAVANAUGH: I want to get in a couple of quick calls, if I may. Catherine is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Catherine.
CATHERINE (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Good morning.
CATHERINE: I just have a question. Earlier in the conversation, the speaker commented that sex offenders are more likely to offend with people that they know and then – and we’re talking about, you know, where they live and such, those types of things. But I was just wondering, I mean, doesn’t that include neighbors and things like that as in the Westerfield case?
CAVANAUGH: I – I…
CATHERINE: Was he a…
CAVANAUGH: It would – would it include neighbors?
DR. ADAMS: It could include neighbors but the – I think the issue here has to do with whether – where a person is living. For example, near a school, is there an increased risk that a sex offender is going to actually offend at a school? And actually the chances of that, based on the research, are very, very small. And I think that our organization is looking at the negative effects of all these – of the residency restrictions where we have literally driven this group of people into a situation where they cannot find a place to live, they cannot get a job, they cannot maintain any family contacts…
CAVANAUGH: And the problem with that is it destabilizes their life and makes them more likely to reoffend.
DR. ADAMS: Correct.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let’s take another call. Archie is calling us from Rancho Penasquitos. Good morning, Archie. Welcome to These Days.
ARCHIE (Caller, Rancho Penasquitos): Oh, good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, hi. Hi.
ARCHIE: Hello? Hello? Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Good morning.
ARCHIE: Oh, yes, well, my concern was as it concerns parents and citizens, I was wanting to try to start a group, a nonprofit organization that would ask for volunteers to be like a watchdog group for violent sexual predators. We know that they’re – we’re given a map, a Mapquest of where they are and what locations they’re located in. You know, I know of a program where I’m sure – I’m not sure if it’s the federal government or the state but it’s called the Weed and Seed Program where they will seed a particular person into a neighborhood to weed out a bad element.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Archie, thank you. Thank you for that. I think that my two panelists here have – see that there might be problems with such a volunteer group. What would you have to say about that, Sheldon?
ZHANG: Volunteer groups is great. I mean, sex offenders, if you, you know, just Google their positions and they are – they are registered. I mean, there’s a 290 but they are registered in California so anyone who’s interested in finding out whether there’s sex offenders in their neighborhood, you can always go online and look up but, you know, the problem is that they do move around. Some of them wear GPS units and then they’re monitored closely. So I don’t know what this volunteer group can actually do in addition to what is already in place. I know there’s a private company now has a new gadget supposedly, it’s a GPS unit with a loudspeaker so if anytime the sex offender steps out of the defined parameters, the loudspeakers start broadcasting, hey, you’re a sex offender…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I didn’t…
ZHANG: …you are in violation. So there are technical solutions to some of the supervision dilemmas. We can certainly tighten up with the GPS units or especially with these audible alarms, we can place much closer supervision over these sex offenders. And for, you know, for some parents if they want to know who their neighbors are, just go online and look, you know, look them up and…
CAVANAUGH: I want to introduce a new guest. Mary Duvall is with us. She is COO of the group Sex Offender Solutions and Education Network. Now Mary has a unique story. Her son was put on a sex offender registry for having sex with a 13-year-old girl when he, himself, was 16. And, Mary, you have one of the hardest jobs, as a public relations person, I think I’ve ever heard of because you are actually speaking up for at least some of the people who have been labeled sex offenders. Tell us if you could quickly what happened to your son Ricky.
MARY DUVALL (COO, Sex Offender Solutions and Education Network): My son was 16, met a girl in a club for 16 to 20 year olds, and the girl misled him about her age. They hooked up and when the police questioned him, he told the truth and Ricky was listed as a Tier 3 predator on the registry for life.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, many people would probably say, Mary, that Ricky’s case is an extreme example. But do you know that there are other people in – who get caught up in sex offender registries?
DUVALL: Oh, absolutely. Recently, a therapist, Don Sweeny, was on my radio show and stated that one-third of the registry is actually juveniles.
CAVANAUGH: So now you have heard, Mary, of the case that we’ve been talking about here in San Diego. We have had two teenage girls who’ve been found murdered and there is a registered sex offender who has been charged with one of those crimes. I wonder, I think that it would be obvious that if, indeed, this man is the one who did this he’s a danger to the community so how do we keep our communities safe without, you know, sort of getting people like your son Ricky labeled for life?
DUVALL: I would have to say I agree with Mr. Fletcher in that we do need to start looking at the sexually violent predators. We need to look at three factors. One would be stranger abductions. I think that should be a red flag. Habitual, automatically life term. And then those who commit violent force or use a weapon in the act of a sex crime. We need to start distinguishing between the most violent and the nonviolent and, as Dr. Adams said, recidivism rates are very low. In the California Sex Offender Management Board, in a 10-year study between 1997 to 2007, the recidivism was only 3.38% so we need to target the most those that are sexually violent like Mr. Gardner.
CAVANAUGH: Now I know that you’ve been working to revise sex offender laws. Would you like to see registries stopped?
DUVALL: You know, that’s a difficult question at this time. I believe that the registry obviously causes a lot of vigilante, a lot of harassment. I face it myself being an advocate. But we need to overhaul the registry. If we’re going to have one, we need to put the most truly violent on there and then, in the case of Gardner, I don’t think he should ever be set free again if he’s convicted.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’m wondering, you say that there should be more distinction against different kinds of offenders. Your son Ricky had his life changed because of being labeled a sex offender.
DUVALL: Right, and…
DUVALL: …my son was listed as a predator Tier 3, so that shows where there’s a major failure in the system of laws. And the Megan’s Law report currently that came out in the last year said these laws do not deter sex crimes, they do not deter recidivism and they do not stop sexual abuse. We need to start focusing more resources and education into prevention. Let’s start educating people before they commit a sex crime, let’s open up more treatment centers. You know, mandatory reporting laws are another harmful avenue down this. Someone who may want to commit a sex crime cannot go seek help because they’ll be turned in. They, you know, they should be able to go and seek help.
CAVANAUGH: I think, you know, in speaking about this, Dr. Adams and Professor Zhang, we – we’ve been talking about statistics and we’ve had a conflict of statistics and we’ve been talking about the fact that a lot of studies that perhaps should have been done about whether or not the laws we have are working have not been done. So how do we approach this data that we are – that’s out there that we haven’t compiled in order to make these decisions that we need? Do we need to study this question more, Dr. Adams?
DR. ADAMS: Well, absolutely. I think that we are just at a frontier. This is a field that virtually nothing was known about 20 years ago. And we have accumulating information, much of which has been generated by the passage of some of these laws and, once again, I think that we need to do, as Assemblyman Fletcher said, very thorough research. We need to take our time, we need to evaluate the impact of these laws, and we need to—when these horrible cases happen—we need to do a detailed analysis of exactly what went wrong and what cues were missed and not so that we can blame but so that we can do a better job of monitoring these people. And I certainly would agree with Ms. Duvall that there are many things in the laws that need to be corrected and that there are some things that foster vigilantism. I, personally, would rather see more resources go into what – the kinds of things that Professor Zhang is doing where we leave these issues in the purview of law enforcement rather than turning them over to the general public but that we fund Parole better, we fund law enforcement better. I would also like to see California start to provide some treatment for sex offenders in prison, which never has existed ever, and I would like to see money put into that but we do – we know a lot more now than we knew 20 years ago and we need to really start taking a look at it and also sharing our resources.
CAVANAUGH: We – I thank – I want to thank all of my guests for a very, very thoughtful discussion about this highly charged subject. Earlier in the discussion, I spoke with Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher. My guests have been Professor Sheldon Zhang and Dr. Jay Adams. We were joined by Mary Duvall, who’s the COO of a group called Sex Offender Solutions and Education Network. And we were joined briefly on the line by Gerald Fineman, a Deputy District Attorney for Riverside County. If you would like to comment on what you’ve heard today here on KPBS, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.