Sex Offender Law Enforcement Flawed?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. The – Today, the community remains shaken by the rape and murder of a Poway teenager. We’ll examine the effectiveness of laws designed to protect kids from predators. We’ll also react to San Diego Councilwoman Donna Frye’s decision not to challenge longtime County Supervisor Ron Roberts in the June primary, and to the new candidate for Treasurer/Tax Collector. And we’ll stay with the County to weigh whether Supervisor Pam Slater-Price’s accepting free tickets from arts groups she funded with tax money will sound the death knell for the highly criticized, so-called supervisors’ discretionary fund. And how about that Jerry Brown for governor announcement? We’ll bat that one around the table a couple of times to get the editors’ reaction. With me are Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times. Kent, thank you for coming down from the North County for us.
KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): Thanks for having me, Gloria.
PENNER: And David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat. You didn’t have that much of a commute, David, but we’ll welcome you anyway.
DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Well, I’m glad to be here. Thanks.
PENNER: And Barbara Bry, associate publisher and opinion editor of SDNN.com. And we are pleased to see you again, Barbara.
BARBARA BRY (Associate Publisher/Opinion Editor, SDNN.com): Thank you, Gloria.
PENNER: And we invite you, our listeners to join our conversation. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, it's every parents’ nightmare, their child hunted down and destroyed by a predator. The case of Poway teenager Chelsea King and her accused killer has spread horror throughout San Diego. John Albert Gardner III is a registered sex offender who served five years in prison for molesting a 13 year old and he was arraigned in court on Wednesday and pleaded not guilty. So, Kent, the reporting on this tragic story has been extensive. We don’t need to cover the details because it’s been so well reported, so let’s get to the questions that are being raised about Gardner’s background as a sexually violent predator known to the criminal justice system. What laws are in place to protect society from repeat offenders?
DAVY: Well, you’ve got a series of laws actually, and I think you need to start off with the idea that Gardner wasn’t in apparent violation of any of the measures currently – or that applied to him and currently in effect. You’ve got Megan’s Law that requires sex offender registration annually or within five days of when they moved. He was registered, last up in Lake Elsinore, I believe. He had registered, I guess, previously in Escondido. You’ve got Jessica’s Law to which – which did not apply to him because it was enacted after his conviction and parole.
PENNER: Now explain before you go on, Jessica’s Law versus Megan’s Law.
DAVY: Okay. Megan’s Law is a registration law, Jessica’s Law, which was spawned by a case that came off the east coast, requires – puts limits on how close to schools and parks sexual offenders can be. And for certain classes of sexual offenders requires lifetime GPS and tracking systems to be…
DAVY: Yes, umm-hmm.
PENNER: So, all right, so you have all of that in effect but, let me turn to you on this, Barbara. How effective is Megan’s Law if people don’t use it to see who lives in their neighborhoods? Because once you’re registered, people can go online…
PENNER: …or they can go to the sheriff’s office and they can figure out if they have any sex offenders in their neighborhood.
BRY: Yes, and actually a group in Rancho Bernardo went online yesterday and found out that a postal delivery person, man, in their neighborhood, you know, falls under the criteria and Channel 6 and SDNN have the story today and so the community, you know, is, you know, trying to take some action and they are concerned. But I think this case goes beyond that. I mean, this was a man who a court psychologist or psychiatrist recommended years ago should be incarcerated up to the maximum and this man was not. Now, we also have to say we’re not, you know, this man is the alleged killer. He is not convicted.
PENNER: Yes, he’s accused, he’s arraigned, he said he’s not guilty…
PENNER: …and so we are not calling him guilty but at this point he is the prime suspect.
PENNER: All right, so here we have it. We have a law, Megan’s Law, David, in which people can look in – around their neighborhoods electronically and figure out who might be there who is a sex offender, and then we have this Jessica’s Law so that offenders aren’t supposed to live within 2000 feet of a school or a park. But what good is Jessica’s Law if offenders can walk from their legally located homes to a park or a jogging trail and attack?
ROLLAND: It’s not much good, and what I’m afraid of is that – and we already have state legislature – legislators such as Nathan Fletcher who are, you know, saying that they’re gearing up to crack down even more on sex offenders. I think there ought to be – I’d like to see – The law that I’d like to see come out of this is a mandated time out after some – after an incident like this happens saying no new laws or no talking about any new laws for six months or something like that so that you don’t have possibly irrational reactions to horrible events like this. The Three Strikes Law came out of a case like this, you know, awhile back and we are now dealing, you know, mostly through a serious budget crisis with the effects of the Three Strikes Law. So, you know, there can be rational responses to things like this and what has to happen, I think, is—and this is something that the state’s Sex Offender Management Board has been trying to articulate recently—and that is, you have to put the resources, you have to marshal all your resources into the worst – the worst of the worst. You have to identify the serious, violent sexual predators and make sure you’re monitoring and you’re overseeing, you know, their whereabouts and their actions because there are a lot of people that get caught up in a wide – when a wide net is cast. I mean, you have people who are sex – or classified as sex offenders who, you know, did nothing more than, you know, urinate in public. And so the experts are saying you really have to focus on the worst of the worst.
PENNER: Okay, let me ask our listeners before I go back to Kent on this, who wants to get in on the conversation again. Do you agree with David Rolland? Do you think that we should have a six-month timeout rather than overreact and react too quickly with new laws and new approaches to dealing with sex offenders now that we’ve all been shocked by the death of Chelsea King? Is it time for us to just sit back and wait and let it all sort of blend in and then come up, perhaps, with some new ideas? Do you agree or is it time to act now? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Kent, and then I want to go to Heidi in Oceanside who wants to talk with us.
DAVY: I think it’s important for people to understand and come to grips with something that is counterintuitive perhaps and unpleasant, and that is that according to most of the research, and the last big study was done in the middle of the nineties by the Department of Justice Standards, most sexual offenders, when taken as a broad group, have recidivism rates that are about half the rate of the general felony population of inmates. Megan’s registry creates a problem and David kind of alluded to this. It is so broad that it is – it really presents kind of a muddy picture because you have such a huge range of people that are included in it all the way from the 17- or the 18-year-old kid who messed around with a 14 year-old girlfriend to someone who is a dangerous violent predator. One of the chief difficulties, though, is the – is we have a fairly imperfect ability to identify those people who are going to recommit or reoffend. It is – This is not an exact science by any means. There have been screenings of over 30,000 inmates in California since the mid-nineties to try and determine if someone has both a mental illness and a history of violent sexual offense, they’ve only collected out 637 of those. It’s a difficult process.
PENNER: Okay, before I go back to our panel, let’s hear what our listeners have to say. We’ll start with Heidi in Oceanside. Heidi, you’re on with the editors. Thank you for calling.
HEIDI (Caller, Oceanside): Hi. Thank you for having me. I have a question. We live in Oceanside and we live very close to a school, within a couple hundred feet. We bought our house knowing about Jessica’s Law. My husband did all the research and that’s why we live where we live. A sexual – a registered sex offender just moved into our neighborhood and we did the research and he lives within the boundaries set forth in Jessica’s Law. He lives closer than the 2000 feet. We then contacted the Oceanside Police Department who said they can’t do anything to enforce this law. So my question is, you guys talk about some great things in terms of the categories of sex offenders. If this guy was just urinating in public, okay, then he’s obviously not a threat as far as I’m concerned. But we don’t know what the category of this sex offender is and we know that he lives within 1200 feet of our – of this school, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. So my question is, what can – what – what do we do?
ROLLAND: Before she – before we let that caller go, I have a question for her.
PENNER: Okay, sure.
PENNER: Stay with us, please, Heidi. David wants to talk with you.
ROLLAND: Did she – did you say when this person was released from prison?
HEIDI: No, I did not. I just know that he is a registered sex offender and he just moved into our neighborhood within the last two weeks and he lives within the boundaries set forth by – in the Jessica’s Law.
ROLLAND: Well, if he was released from prison before – I don’t have the date in front of me but I think it’s November 2006 then he – they cannot apply Jessica’s Law retroactively. So Jessica’s Law applies to people that are released from prison after a certain point because laws simply can’t be applied retroactively.
PENNER: Okay, thank…
ROLLAND: And also, I think it was Kent’s paper that I just read this morning where they are – they’re – the system, they’re tightening up their – what people can know about what a sex offender did, the facts of the case. I believe in June they’re going to be – I think they’re going to be starting to provide people with more information about what that person did so you can make decisions based on the severity of the case.
DAVY: They’re also going to be providing local police departments with considerable more information about individual cases. Heretofore, they’ve not had things like the psych evaluation or the nuts and bolts of the psych evaluation being provided to them after the offender comes out. So that should help as well.
BRY: I think what Dave said was really good about not overreacting right away but I think during this six month time period we can look at what went wrong with the system and what we, as a community, can do better. And I feel really saddened by this case. I mean, it really has – it had torn at me in a way that has surprised me because I really feel that our government and our society let Chelsea King down.
PENNER: Okay, well, we are coming up with a break so very, very briefly, David, and then we’ll come back and take some callers.
ROLLAND: Well, and Barbara got right to the main point of this case and what seemed to go wrong was not a matter of legislation but it was a matter of how Gardner’s, if indeed he is guilty of this – in the Chelsea King case, what went wrong, what seemed to have went wrong was a matter of discretion at the District Attorney’s office level.
PENNER: Okay, very good. We are going to go into our break now and when we return, we’re going to take more of your calls and continue discussing this issue of sex offenses and what can be done about repeat offenders in the wake of Chelsea King’s death. Our number again is 1-888-895-5727. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner, and I’m at the roundtable today with Barbara Bry of SDNN.com, David Rolland of San Diego CityBeat, and from the North County Times, we have Kent Davy. We are talking about the Chelsea King aftermath, shall we put it that way? We’re talking about the laws that apply to recidivist sex offenders and whether they are good enough, strong enough, what other options are there? And we’ve been hearing from our listeners on this. And just before I go back to the phones, I just want to raise this one school of thought, that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated, that they’re destined to reoffend and, thus, they should not be released into society once they are identified as sexually violent criminals. Is that too extreme to even consider, Kent Davy?
DAVY: Well, I think that that’s – that is exactly the impulse that’s leading a lot of public comment, to say that there ought to be a one strike rule with sexually violent criminals, there ought to be physical and chemical castration and a real, real rising tide of anger. I’ve been struck the last couple of days. I’ve been in places and talked to people who I would put normally in the very liberal camp politically and socially, yet the kind of anger coming out of them is palpable and it is centered in that kind of conversation.
PENNER: And it translates into this kind of one solution fits all. You know, put them away.
DAVY: Well, that and combined with the propensity of politicians to always run as – on an anti-crime platform.
ROLLAND: The danger there, when we start talking about that kind of thing is that sex offenses is a broad umbrella category of crimes. There are a lot of different kinds of sex offenses. You know, you have people that are, you know, that are attracted sexually to pre-pubescent children. They’re – and, you know, they are different, you know, in a – from a mental health standpoint than people who are attracted to older adolescent children. You know, so you really have to get specific when you start talking about this. You know, then – When I – I covered a child molestation case back in the nineties and, you know, before – I don’t want to go too far in, you know, pretending I’m an expert in, you know, whether people can be rehabilitated or not but what I understood at that time is that, you know, pedophilia, which is people interested in very young children, that that is very difficult to rehabilitate. But that’s different from other types of sex crimes.
PENNER: Our audience is very eager to speak with us. I’m going to take some calls now and I’m going to ask our audience members who are calling in to please make their comments brief so that we can spread it around to the entire neighborhood. We’ll start with Skip in La Mesa. Skip, thanks for calling.
SKIP (Caller, La Mesa): Hi. Thank you. I just have to say that a large aspect of Megan’s Law is a joke. We had a person, a stepdad to my two daughters that we found out was convicted of felony child molestation in Massachusetts. Did – Went through the parole, completed all that, and was obviously required to register as a sex offender. When I found out about all this, I checked with the City of Irvine, where they had been living for several years and he’d never registered. When I notified the police department, they went out and investigated and registered him but there was no penalty, there was no anything. They’ve recently moved to Portland, Oregon. I contact the Portland Police Department about six months after they had moved and, again, he hadn’t registered and they went, they investigated and he’s now registered. So if people feel safe thinking that they can go online and look and find out if there are sex offenders living within their neighborhood, it’s a joke. There’s no control over this.
PENNER: Okay, quickly, David.
ROLLAND: Yeah, I wanted to say Megan’s Law is not a panacea. It’s not a silver bullet. And, in fact, I read last night, and it was a New Jersey-based law journal that made the case that even Megan’s parents knew. They have said they didn’t know there was a sex offender living across the street but a lot of, you know, this story said that a lot of the other people in the neighborhood on that street knew there was a sex offender living there and that Megan’s parents had to have known and, still, they weren’t able to stop this person from doing what he did.
PENNER: So where does the responsibility fall then? I mean, Skip is saying basically he wasn’t registered, nobody was pursuing it except himself.
ROLLAND: Well, I believe, I don’t know if Kent knows for sure, but I believe it’s a crime not to register, right?
ROLLAND: You have to register.
DAVY: Yeah, you do have to register – that – I don’t know with regard to what issues are in terms of enforcing it and why it’s not enforced generally but I do believe that it is a crime to – yeah.
PENNER: So is this sort of an alert to the police departments, you know, maybe you should sharpen up your practices…
PENNER: …in terms of taking a look at who is in the neighborhoods who might be sex offenders.
ROLLAND: Well, and maybe people want to start talking about augmenting the, you know, the budgets of law…
ROLLAND: …law enforcement agencies because you only have so much money to do all this, to monitor all these people.
PENNER: Okay, we are running out of time quickly, so let’s get to Gita in Encinitas. Gita, you’re on with the editors. Please make it brief.
GITA (Caller, Encinitas): Good morning, everyone. I just want to make a comment that a simple communication between the authorities and the public might help as there was an attack in the same park probably by the same person in December. If there was a sign posted there that there is a predator that is preying on females alone, joggers, whatever, and people possibly would pay attention to that and it’s just a simple communication like we have in Neighborhood Watch. Obviously, you can’t help it when your child is kidnapped in the middle of the night from their bedroom but there are certain areas that as a public we can protect ourselves if it’s a better communication between the authority and us.
PENNER: Thank you, Gita, and I think Justin in San Diego agrees with you. Justin, you’re on with the editors.
JUSTIN (Caller, San Diego): Yeah, I just, along with the previous caller, I don’t think there’s anything – that you can make laws all day long to try and protect yourselves against these people but the basic is that they have a primal, instinctive urge that they’re trying to satiate and, you know, the only way you’re going to be able to combat these people is to protect yourself. So traveling in packs, having things like Mace, you know, jogging in pairs at things – at parks and that sort of thing, that’s the only way you’re going to be able to protect yourself. You can’t rely on society to do it for you.
PENNER: And it sure looks like some guidelines are starting to come out about safe running and jogging and how you should proceed with all of that. Okay, well, let’s try to get some real fast wrap-up comments from our editors. I’d like you to comment on both what Gita and Justin were saying. You can have laws all day but you really need to kind of be self-responsible in this situation. What do you think about it?
DAVY: Well, I agree with that but I also think it’s important to not overreact in the sense of I suspect if we could look at the actual incident, if we had omniscience and could actually see the number of offenses that – occuring, I suspect that we are not moving into a more dangerous society. This sort of stuff, I think, has probably been with us maybe forever. And what is different now is the amount of information, the speed with which it rolls through, the wave of publicity, so that when cases happen, everybody knows about it and the emotional wave carries us along.
PENNER: Okay, well with that, we’re going to wrap this up. I’m going to ask all the callers to please go to KPBS.org/editorsroundtable and let us hear your comments, and especially since you really tried to get through to us and you couldn’t. We thank you for all of that.