The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released a report today that recommends changes to the way the state monitors people who have served prison sentences for sex crimes and are now back in the community. Many of the recommendations are ideas that have been floating about in the academic and policy worlds, but the advent of the report is still momentous: any time you talk about changing the laws regarding sex offenders and how they’re tracked, things can get politically dicey. This report, unlike previous ones, comes from the hands of police officers, sheriffs deputies, parole officers, prosecutors, and prison system officials–and much of it is meant to clear up some common misconceptions about sex offenders, who they are, and what kinds of things actually prevent them from hurting more victims. Some of the suggestions promise to be controversial, calling for the roll-back of politically popular laws.
Overall, the report calls for nine changes in the way sex offenders are supervised while on parole:
- Implement a “containment model.” Which basically means that sex offender supervision should always be looked at with all of its complexities and all the people it affects in mind. Which means involving victims groups, working with legislators, and regularly auditing progress.
- Change how the department assesses who’s at highest risk for re-offending. Currently, each sex offender is given a risk assessment when they’re released from prison that looks at their past behavior and determines what level of supervision they should receive. But there are other factors that contribute to risk–like living situation, work life, emotional health, supportive families. What’s called a “dynamic” risk model takes things like these into effect–and can change as an ex-offender’s situation evolves.
- Have different levels of supervision for different people. Some sex offenders are high risk; others are not. Many fall somewhere in the middle. Currently, there are two levels of supervision that a sex offender can be assigned. The report recommends there be more, and that the level of supervision change depending on how well the offender responds to being back in the community.
- Get rid of “passive” GPS monitoring. Right now, about 6,600 paroled sex offenders are monitored on GPS. But that doesn’t mean someone’s watching every step they take. For some of them, a parole agent looks at where they’ve been about once a week. The report recommends that everyone’s travels be tracked once a day.
- Build a monitoring center. That said, more and more of a parole officer’s time is spent looking at a computer and responding to alerts that the GPS bracelets give off all the time (thousands a day statewide). If there were a monitoring center that took care of checking the alerts, parole agents could presumably spend more time in the field, checking up on parolees.
- Switch experienced parole officers to sex offender units. Instead of assigning the least experienced officers to sex offender units, send the most experienced ones, the report says. Those who know what to look for to see if a parolee is hiding something.
- Reduce caseloads. Right now, parole officers in sex offender units have from 20-40 parolees each under their supervision. The report says that number shouldn’t be higher than 20.
- Increase oversight. After Jaycee Lee Dugard was found to be living in a tent complex in Philip Garrido’s back yard in Antioch, many people pointed out the fact that Garrido was a registered sex offender, that parole agents had visited his house, and yet still, no one noticed Dugard’s continued imprisonment. The report recommends more managerial oversight and evaluations of how parolees are being monitored.
- Get rid of Jessica’s Law housing restrictions. This recommendation promises to be the most controversial. Jessica’s Law was passed as Proposition 83 in 2006 and among other things, it created strict rules for where sex offenders can and can’t live. According to the law, sex offenders cannot live within 2,000 feet of a school, park, or place where children regularly gather. Which means that in some cities (like SF) they can’t live anywhere and must declare themselves transient. Before the law passed, there were 88 homeless sex offenders on parole in California. Right now, there are about 2,100. The report says there’s no evidence to suggest that residency restrictions actually change the likelihood a sex offender will commit a new crime–they actually hurt public safety by ensuring unstable situations for already troubled people. The report recommends that the restrictions be dropped.
So what now? Robert Ambroselli, the Director of the Division of Adult Parole Operations at the CDCR, told a group of reporters this afternoon that the department is reviewing the recommendations and seeing which ones can be implemented and how. The large remaining questions, which CDCR does not yet have answers to, are whether the resources and political will are there to see them through. Reducing the caseloads and switching experienced parole officers to sex offender units would either require taking resources from other areas of parole or getting a chunk of money from a state budget that’s already over-strained. Rolling back Jessica’s Law would also take considerable political maneuvering–a two-thirds vote of the legislature would be required to alter it. Senator Mark Leno, the chair of the Senate’s Public Safety Committee has said that he and other legislators are working on getting a bipartisan coalition together to take on the residency restrictions. Last week, a Los Angeles judge declared the residency restrictions unconstitutional, though the ruling only applies to LA county.