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The Story On Parole for Sexual Offenders

The Story On Parole for Sexual Offenders
Are California's sex offender and parole laws being properly enforced? What are the economic and social costs of implementing stricter laws? We'll look at the battle to make sure California's legal system is working properly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego continues to mourn the deaths of teenagers Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. Now that the memorial services are over, the conversation has turned toward prevention. Chelsea King's parents and a local Assemblyman are in the process of crafting a new Chelsea's law, which will reportedly focus attention on tightening up parole requirements for people convicted of sex crimes. The man charged with Chelsea's murder is a registered sex offender. The confusing part of this issue is that California has already tightened up parole and the length of prison sentences for sex offenders. The question is whether the reforms are being enforced, and practically speaking, are there enough resources, in terms of personnel and money, to carry out the reforms. San Diego CityBeat has conducted its own investigation into California’s sex offender laws. A feature published today is called “No Quick Fix.” And I’d like to welcome my guests Kelly Davis, associate editor of San Diego CityBeat. Kelly, welcome. Good morning.

KELLY DAVIS (Associate Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And David Rolland is editor of San Diego CityBeat. David, good morning.

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think California’s sex offender laws make sense? Do you have any idea how those laws might be changed? Give us a call with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. You know, Kelly, there’s a lot of confusion about California’s sex offender laws and the title of your piece suggests we’ve been going about trying to fix the problem in the wrong way. So what do you think is wrong with the approach?

DAVIS: Well, currently the law, one of the main laws on the books in terms of sex offender management is Jessica’s Law or Prop 83, which was passed by voters in 2006. Well, part of the law was a voter mandate and then there was a portion that was passed by the legislature. But what it’s done is added these new layers of restrictions to paroled sex offenders: where they can live, there’s now GPS monitoring. And then, of course, prior to Jessica’s Law, we had Megan’s Law, which created a online database so the public can, you know, look up and see if any sex offenders are living in their neighborhood. But the thing is, all these provisions, monitoring, you know, where people live, monitoring, you know, where they are with the GPS, and maintaining the Megan’s Law website, it’s all very costly. And research study after research study, I mean, I read everything that I could find and then there was a lot more that I didn’t have time to read. There is really no evidence that any of these things prevent sex offenders from committing crimes, from recidivating. And so we have these very costly measures in place that there’s no basis in research to show that they’re making people safer.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you more specifically about some of the things that you mentioned but another way of looking at it overall, I think, some people in your article actually say, you know, we’re – we go at these things too quickly without – and too emotionally. Tell us more about that.

DAVIS: Absolutely. I mean, you know, you look at the series of laws and they’re named after children who either – I know that the very first sex offender notification law was the Jacob Wetterling Act. He was abducted, although he’s never been found. I can’t remember the exact year that happened. Then we have Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, now Chelsea’s Law’s proposed. And, you know, when you have a child’s name tied to it, I think that really – the goal is to get people thinking about that child and what happened to that child and that’s what stirs the emotion. And you have the family of that child who is wanting to know exactly what happened and what can be done to fix it. So I think that…

CAVANAUGH: And so some people would have the question, Dave, what’s wrong with that?

ROLLAND: Well, what can be wrong with that, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that but what can be wrong with it is that when you’re driven by emotion, sometimes an intellect, you know, takes a back seat and, you know, we find that people are quick to bypass research that’s already been done, research that will tell you about people’s behaviors and what’s the best treatment for it and what’s the best prevention. So right now we’ve got probably a very well-meaning State Assemblyman, Nathan Fletcher, who is – seems to be driving a locomotive ready to propose Chelsea’s Law. We don’t know exactly what’s going to be in it. He has hinted some things about, you know, lifetime imprisonment for, you know, first time child rapists and that sort of thing, and all that sounds good but there is something in the state of California called the California Sex Offender Management Board that has done a lot of research. They’ve written reports. They’ve done their due diligence on the current laws and they have identified holes and made recommendations and what I fear is this emotion driven response. You know, Chelsea’s only been gone for a little more than a month here. It hasn’t been that long. And what we argue at CityBeat is that we need to go at this a little more slowly, really access the research that’s already been done and respond in smart ways rather than emotional ways.

CAVANAUGH: Kelly, I do want to – I want you to tell me a little bit more about the California Sex Offender Management Board because that is a group that features prominently in your article. What is it?

DAVIS: It was – it’s a 17-member, all volunteer board that was created by an Assembly bill in 2006 and they were charged with assessing California’s sex offender management practices and making recommendations to the governor and to the legislature. And I know there was a Union-Tribune article a couple of weeks ago, I think, that really criticized the board because there were some people who weren’t showing up to meetings, some, I think, governor legislative appointees who weren’t showing up. And the board has very little funding but despite all that, you do have a core group. You know, I’ve looked through all the minutes and there is this core group of experts, of clinicians, you know, Ph.D.s who have shown up for every meeting and really brought in people from the Department of Corrections, Department of Mental Health, from the district attorney’s offices throughout the state, taken testimony from them, and come up with some, what I think are just really, really informative reports on the deficiencies in sex offender management practices. And these reports just haven’t been heeded. I just want to know why, you know, when their first big, initial report in January 2008, when that came out why the legislature wasn’t beating the drum and waving the report, saying, lookit, look at these reforms that need to be made. We, you know, we’ve got to get better on how we manage sex offenders.

CAVANAUGH: I would’ve – I would – I think it fair to say that most Californians don’t know there is such a thing as the California Sex Offender Management Board.

DAVIS: Their website is and if you go there, click on reports. You will see the work they’ve done and also they will point to work done by other groups, task force groups, panels and things that they – reports that they feel are important for the public to know. And I also want to add they will be doing a full review of what happened to Chelsea, how John Gardner was managed in prison and managed on parole. That report will not be done – they estimate it’ll be done in May. Nathan Fletcher’s rolling out his new law, I believe, the U-T story today said next week. One expert I spoke to for my story, Jill Levenson, who’s, you know, researched sex offender laws extensively, she said, you know, come on, look, let’s wait until – at least wait until the Sex Offender Management Board investigation is complete because that could provide a road map for policy changes and maybe for drawing up some new laws.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Kelly Davis and David Rolland, both of San Diego CityBeat, and we’re talking about a new investigative piece by San Diego CityBeat that’s been published today called “No Quick Fix.” We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a call or two right now. CeCe is calling us from Oceanside. Good morning, CeCe. Welcome to These Days.

CECE (Caller, Oceanside): Hi. Thanks for having me on.


CECE: I, myself, am a sexual abuse survivor and I’m actually really glad to hear a little bit of rationality around the subject. The way you guys are talking about it, you’re absolutely right. It’s such an emotional issue that we all become kind of idiots when trying to deal with it. And the fact is, the people who sexually abuse children are people. In most cases, they’re like our neighbors and our uncles. And in my case, my father, my grandfather. And these are really nice people. They’re not – I mean, they look like nice people, they look like normal people. We expect them to be monsters. One in a gazillion cases are the John Gardners of the world but in most cases – And here’s a really important fact, one-third of all child sexual abuse happens at the hands of other children, older, more powerful children. Those kids need treatment. They don’t need to be labeled sex offenders and sent away for the rest of their lives. They need to be (audio dropout) and – and then they don’t have to turn into insane criminals.

CAVANAUGH: CeCe, thank you so much for your comments. Let’s take another call. Andrew is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Andrew. Welcome to These Days.

ANDREW (Caller, San Diego): Good morning.


ANDREW: There’s another way to handle sexual offenders that would eliminate the need for registered sex offenders database, would eliminate a need for review boards. If violent sex offenders, on their second offense, had a mandatory death penalty, the recidivism rate would be zero. You wouldn’t have to worry about repeat offenders then. They would be out of that picture, not available to exert their mental illnesses on other people.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Andrew, thank you for your comments. And I think in those two calls we spanned the gamut of the reaction that people have to the way California manages their sex – our sex offender laws. And I’d like you to comment, Dave.

ROLLAND: Well, and, indeed, that is the spectrum right there. I really appreciated CeCe’s call in particular, as you might expect. You know, she brings up the point that, you know, sex – First of all, when we’re talking about sex offenders, we are talking about such an incredibly wide universe of types of people and types of crimes. I’m not exactly sure how many crimes there are under the umbrella of sex offender but I – it’s in the dozens, I believe, you know, and we’re talking about everybody from somebody who might, you know, expose themself (sic) in public to a 20-year-old male who has a relationship with a 17-year-old female, to, you know, to sociopaths who prey on children. It’s a wide, wide array of people and one of the concerns, you asked about what’s the problem with emotion-driven responses to this kind of problem, is that the worry is that you cast too wide a net and people who get caught up in it aren’t always the people you intend to snare.

CAVANAUGH: And, Kelly, we – tell – you mentioned Jessica’s Law. And Jessica’s Law has been mentioned time and time again as the law that really tightened things up. It redefined what kind of things constituted a sexual offense that could really keep somebody in prison for a very, very long time and perhaps even send them away for life. What do we know about how Jessica’s Law is working?

DAVIS: Oh, gosh. I do know that it increased mandatory minimum sentences or implemented mandatory sentencing where in the past someone who might’ve gotten probation will now – Gosh, this is something I’m not…

CAVANAUGH: It’s very complicated.

DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah, I…

CAVANAUGH: No, I – I’m completely with you. It’s very, very complicated. Let me focus on parole though, because I know Jessica’s Law actually boosts someone’s – whether or not they are referred to mental health screening, is that correct?

DAVIS: Yes, anyone who has committed – there’s a certain category of offense that would fall under the potential sexually violent predator – or, if a person committed one of a delineated number of offenses, they will be referred for screening to determine if they are a sexually violent predator. And it’s a very involved process. There are levels of screening. It goes all the way down to a court hearing where a jury will have to determine whether or not this person’s crime was tied to a diagnosable mental disorder.

ROLLAND: It basically, in, you know, fewer words, it lowered the threshold…

DAVIS: Yeah.

ROLLAND: …in several ways for who gets snared in the net of initial screening for review on whether or not that person, when they get out of prison, should be hospitalized and protected from the community.


ROLLAND: So I believe that the number is tenfold. It increased the number of inmates that go into this kind of screening by a factor of ten, which has caused – which is incredibly expensive, incredibly time consuming and is actually the subject of a lot of our issues with the way that the Union-Tribune has been covering the issues.

DAVIS: And I might add, in the – prior to Jessica’s Law, there was the prior sexually violent predator law required a person to have committed an offense against two victims and there had to be at least a six month period between those crimes because the person had to exhibit some sort of inclination to commit these offenses. And now here’s a good example that was given to me. Somebody who touches the leg of a child under the age of 14 and appears to be sexually aroused by that action, that person will be referred for screening under the sexually violent predator provision of Jessica’s Law.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Laura Arnold is calling us. She’s a public defender and I believe she’s in your article.


CAVANAUGH: She’s quoted in your article, Kelly. Laura, welcome to These Days.

LAURA ARNOLD (Public Defender, San Diego): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: What is your comment? What is your initial take, if I may, about…

ARNOLD: Well, I wanted to actually respond to your last question, which was what has been the impact of Jessica’s Law.


ARNOLD: Again, I have to refer back to the California Sex Offender Management Reports because they are very comprehensive and they really talk a great deal about how these laws have impacted registered sex offenders throughout the entire state. One example would be that the number of parolees who are now homeless and perpetually nomadic, meaning that they are sleeping on the streets, under bridges, they’re sleeping in wheelchairs, at trolley stops, those – that number has increased by more than 800%.

CAVANAUGH: Because Jessica’s Law…

ARNOLD: Because of…

CAVANAUGH: …prohibits where – has real restrictions on where registered sex offenders can live.

ARNOLD: They have one-third mile restrictions for all registered sex offenders including those who committed a misdemeanor sex offense 25 years ago and never subsequently reoffended with any sort of sex crime, those who’ve never committed any sex crime involving a minor and would never, ever conceive of doing so, those whose sex crimes were not violent, and those who are juvenile offenders, meaning that they themselves committed their sexual offense against a child while they were still a child. So the impact in our 85,000 to 90,000 sex offenders in California and it is, as the editor of CityBeat mentioned, it is one of the most heterogeneous populations one can imagine. Their offenses range all over the map. As far as the civil commitment scheme created by Jessica’s Law, the Sexually Violent Predator Act, it redefined violent to include offenses where there was no violence whatsoever but where the other participant in the offense was under the age of 14. Violent doesn’t require violence in the way that we think of violence. We, you know – but rather the way that the initiative drafters have defined violence. So now there’s this enormous list of mandates that the state has to take care of both the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections and I’m not going to go back to there’s no money, that complaint, but in fact that’s a very concrete reality. You would think that when you have someone on parole who committed a sex offense 25 years ago and it’s not a particularly heinous one and that person is dying, you would think that there would be some funding available through the state to perhaps find, arrange for, some sort of compliant housing for that individual so they don’t have to die on the streets. But there isn’t any funding available. And, you know, I had a client, a misdemeanor offense 20 years ago against an adult, registered sex offender, on parole for narcotics offense. He was released on parole Thursday, ready to go home with his 70-year-old parents to celebrate Easter. He was returned to custody within less than 24 hours. So…

CAVANAUGH: Laura, well, I’m sorry. I have to stop you. I understand the point of your call, and thank you so much for calling. We really do have to take a short break and when we return, we will continue our discussion about sex offender laws in California and continue 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 Kelly Davis and David Rolland, both of San Diego CityBeat. And we’re talking about an investigative report that’s been published today in San Diego CityBeat called “No Quick Fix.” It’s an investigation into California’s sex offender laws. And I’d like to get your reaction, Kelly, to what we heard from Laura Arnold, the public defender who called in and talked about the fact that the – what she felt were the restrictions in housing on sex offenders were so tight now that we – they don’t – sex offenders don’t have any place to live. And she was saying that can be dangerous.

DAVIS: Yeah, and I’m really glad Laura called and brought that up because that is such an important point, is when you have – you have no place to live. I mean, there’s plenty of stories of sex offenders who are paroled and they cannot return to the house that they own because that house happens to be within 2,000 feet of a school or playground. But the instability that that creates, the resentment that can build up in a person and, plus, anyone who’s committed any kind of crime can tell you how difficult it is to get a job. So you have joblessness, you have homelessness, you have essentially banishment from a community, you know, if you’re on the registry. Well, you have to be on the registry. But people know where you live. They will come to your house. They will harass you even though that is – under Megan’s Law, you’re not supposed to harass sex offenders but it does happen all the time. And so, you know, if there’s one thing that can lead to recidivism, it is the instability that these laws create for people so…

CAVANAUGH: Another thing that I was – really noted in your article, Kelly, is the fact that some people, people who are involved in the California Sex Offender Management Board, were talking about treatment, treatment for sex offenders. And, you know, I think the general public, we have heard over and over again there is no effective treatment for sex offenders. Why even bother? Why even bother spending the time? Why even bother creating the programs because this treatment is not effective. What did you hear from people when you were talking about this for this article?

DAVIS: Treatment is the one thing that has been absolutely proven to reduce recidivism and I think some people will conflate treatment and cure. Everyone will agree, most everyone will agree that a sex offender cannot be cured if you do have a mental disorder that will lead to sexual offending. But you can – like any mental illness, it could be managed, it could be treated. You can be given medication, so treatment is the one thing that has been proven to reduce recidivism by at least 40% yet sex offenders in prison do not get any treatment. It has been recommended time and time again. I believe CDCR has set up a scheme for treatment in custody for sex offenders, no funding for that. Once they’re out on parole, the state recently had to discontinue its treatment for high risk sex offenders because of some contract issues. They’re trying to get that going again. But it’s pretty amazing that targeted treatment for sex offenders is not part of the mandated sex offender management plan for the state of California.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk to Ron. He’s calling us from Tierrasanta. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And you can post your comments online at And good morning, Ron. Welcome to These Days.

RON (Caller, Tierrasanta): Good morning and thank you. I want to make one point. If we go for this emotionally appealing one strike law idea, what it does is turn almost every child rape into a child murder. If there is no difference in the penalty for leaving the victim alive or not, why on earth would these people leave the victims alive who can identify them? So we never think of the consequences of these emotional laws but this one will directly result in the deaths of children.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Ron. I wonder if either of you have any reaction?

ROLLAND: I’d actually – that had not occurred to me. I mean, it’s an interesting point. You know, I should note that, you know, you talk about first offense versus second offense, whatever, sex offenders statistically have a very, very, very low recidivism rate so – and when we’re talking about violent sex crimes, it’s also – I’ve seen research that said that for the most part people who have sexual problems with attraction to children, let’s say, are not – their problem is not one of violence, it’s one of sexual arousal. So, you know, whether somebody who can rape a child is clearheaded enough to think about the consequences, you know, of, you know, you know, what will happen to them if they leave that child alive or, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know if that person is that capable of rational thought on that level.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Dave, you said a little while ago that you and the CityBeat editorial staff has had a little bit of a problem with the way the Union-Tribune has been covering this story but getting away from the specific Union-Tribune, have you had a problem with the way the media in general in San Diego has covered the King-Dubois deaths and the aftermath?

ROLLAND: Well, I, personally, have focused a lot of my attention on the Union-Tribune’s coverage because it is the local paper of record. It’s the dominant media in town and it tends to be the paper that decision makers read on a regular basis and take their cues from. Nathan Fletcher is, when he’s talking in public, he is referring to Union-Tribune stories so I have really focused on the Union-Tribune but I’m happy to just refer to the mainstream media but it really has been the U-T’s coverage and, you know, that coverage has bordered on – it’s run the gamut from, at best, sensationalized headlines, at worst, patently false headlines, to mis – what I think is mis – possible misinterpretation of data because they might be rushing things, to making irresponsible decisions such as publishing third-hand claims about what confidential documents might say and then repeating after that first story is done, repeating those claims as if they are fact without qualifying their third-hand nature. So I believe that our zeal, the mainstream media’s zeal, to get to the bottom of everything really quickly has led to some irresponsible reporting.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we will, indeed, be opening up a response from the Union-Tribune whenever they would care to make one. I’m wondering, Kelly, though, on a broader way, not just in response to a single paper, your article targets emotional reactions that have occurred all over the place, all over California, when it comes to the death or violation of a child. And I’m wondering what spurred you to look into this? Is this a subject that you have had on your radar or is this something that’s just come to you because you thought maybe the coverage has been unbalanced?

DAVIS: It’s something I’ve written about in the past just based on actually when the City of San Diego passed its Child Protection Ordinance, I believe it was a couple of years ago, that restricted – it added – it supplemented Jessica’s Law by adding presence restrictions where a person can be. And no matter when they committed their crime, you know, if you committed your crime 30 years ago, under San Diego’s Child Protection Ordinance, you can’t go to the zoo. Let’s say you have a grandkid visiting, want to go to the zoo, can’t go. That law’s actually – what’s the word? On hold? It’s…

ROLLAND: Pending.


DAVIS: No. There has been an injunction against the law…


DAVIS: …a legal injunction. The law cannot be enforced currently. So that got me really interested in sex offender laws, doing a lot of research and more and more seeing that there is really no link between the laws we have in place and what research is saying and what a drain on the system these laws can be, and how, quite often, you have the indictment of an entire – the entire criminal justice system based on the actions of one person, one person and not a – There’s, you know, one thing that drives me crazy, is I keep hearing parents saying they’re afraid to let their kids out of the house. There is absolutely no evidence that there is a, you know, wave of crimes being committed by sex offenders, you know, dozens of children being snatched off the street. There are two very, very tragic instances that may have been committed, you know, by one person, we don’t know. He’s, you know, there’s – he still is entitled to a fair trial. But there’s no indication that, you know, the streets are filled with sex offenders waiting to prey on kids.

CAVANAUGH: I want to try to squeeze in one more call at least. Michael is calling us from University Heights. Good morning, Michael. Welcome to These Days.

MICHAEL (Caller, University Heights): Good morning, Maureen. I used to be a television reporter for 15 years and I know how easy it is to cover these stories with stranger sex offenders who are arrested and you have everybody turning out to search for a child, tragic as it is, and everybody willing to talk. That’s an easy story to cover. What’s disturbing to me is now that I’ve been a licensed clinical social worker, a psychotherapist and working with child trauma, children who’ve been sexually abused, we know that most sexual abuse happens within the family. It’s the child’s grandfather, uncle, mother, father, stepfather, it’s somebody the child knows. And when parents and families in the community focus on strangers, they’re taking the eye off the person inside their home that is the most likely to traumatize a child.

CAVANAUGH: Michael, thank you for the call. And let’s hear from Margaret in Poway. Good morning, Margaret, and welcome to These Days.

MARGARET (Caller, Poway): Thank you for taking my call. Hi. I just wanted to make the comment that I think – This is just my opinion. I am no expert on the subject. My father molested me so I’m a victim. I believe he and I both have ADHD which makes it difficult to control in us, now this is not true of everybody with ADHD so I don’t want everybody to get afraid of somebody that has it. But I believe that it played a part, that difficulty controlling impulses, along with the fact that I think my father had a lot of emotional problems, and that inability to control his impulses, which can be treated. There is some treatment. I’m taking medicine myself…


MARGARET: …which wasn’t available to him.

CAVANAUGH: I have to thank you for your call. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Margaret. And, Dave, yes.

ROLLAND: Just to underscore that, we’ve heard from two people, two women, who have called in that say they are sexual abuse survivors and both of them, it happened within their family. And that underscores the point that these things often are cyclical, that one way to prevent further instances is for people who have been victimized by somebody in their family to get treatment, that that in itself will solve a lot of the problems, just by getting treatment when you, yourself, have been the victim.


CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.

DAVIS: I just might add real quick, yeah, that research shows that 90% of children who are sexually abused know their victims (sic), so a family member, a close friend, so only about 10% are strangers.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much, Kelly, for telling us about your article today. Thank you for coming in here and talking with us.

DAVIS: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Kelly Davis is the author of “No Quick Fix.” It’s the investigative report in San Diego CityBeat. Kelly is associate editor of San Diego CityBeat. And David Rolland has been with us. He is the editor of the San Diego CityBeat. And thank you, Dave.

ROLLAND: My pleasure. Thanks for having us, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to post your comments, please go online, You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.