Feb. 23 2011 10:25 AM

It takes longer than a few minutes to explain why some sex offenders need defending

For many sex offenders, a tent becomes home for the duration of their parole.
Photo by Kelly Davis

I received a letter a couple of weeks ago from an anonymous correspondent who’d heard me talking about sex offenders on KPBS’s Feb. 4 Editors Roundtable radio show. I had suggested as a topic a story that Kelly Davis broke in CityBeat that week—an under-the-radar case playing out in a San Diego courtroom in which a public defender was trying to relieve a certain class of convicted sex offenders from the residency restrictions in Jessica’s Law.

The letter underscored how difficult it is to clearly communicate the intricacies of such a hot-button issue. We had less than 15 minutes to discuss it on the show, which isn’t much when you have to include a host, three panelists and a caller or two. It didn’t help that I did a crappy job of trying to cram the important points into a coherent narrative. Still, this particular corner of the sex-offender world is difficult to explain regardless of the circumstances. Since this heartfelt letter was anonymous, the only way to respond is in this space and hope he or she sees it.

The letter writer tells one of the most common victimization stories: sex abuse in the family. The writer was “repeatedly victimized” as a child by a brother, and the parents didn’t do anything to stop it for fear of legitimizing a “scandal.” The writer suffers from depression, is unemployed and has been unable to engage in normal romantic relationships, while the brother has lived a comparatively full and healthy life. The writer appreciates my “soft heart” for the plight of sex offenders who’ve been made homeless by Jessica’s Law but wanted me to better understand the plight of victims, whose lives “are far more tragic, hopeless, haunted, and painful.”

That’s not what this conversation is about. It’s terribly important for this person, and everyone else, to know that the class of people Davis has been writing about doesn’t include the predatory brother in the letter.

Deputy Public Defender Laura Arnold was fighting for people who did their time for a sex offense, were released before Jessica’s Law was passed, were paroled and then committed a non-sex offense. They returned to prison and were subjected to Jessica’s Law upon their release. See how complicated it gets as soon as the explanation begins?

Under the law, convicted sex offenders can’t live within 2,000 feet of schools or parks, which has rendered thousands of Californians homeless. Parole authorities don’t impose the residency restrictions on people who were released prior to the law’s 2006 passage—you can’t enforce a law retroactively unless retroactivity is explicitly stated in the law’s language. So, Arnold’s clients are people who would be allowed to live anywhere they wish if only they hadn’t committed a non-sex crime. One, for example, did time for a 1987 misdemeanor sexual assault against his girlfriend but was homeless only because he was caught stealing while on parole. The intent of Jessica’s Law was to protect children. It’s unlikely anyone convicted of victimizing a child and considered a high risk for reoffending would be granted relief from residency restrictions.

As Davis reported in a follow-up blog post last week, Arnold prevailed on behalf of four people who were homeless only because they committed a non-sex offense while on parole and can’t afford to live in the few locations allowable under Jessica’s Law’s restrictions. But the case could serve as a basis for relief for all other similarly situated people.

“The evidence in this case shows that the rigid application of the residency restrictions results in large groups of parolees having to sleep in alleys and riverbeds,” Judge Michael Wellington wrote in his ruling, “a circumstance that did not exist prior to Jessica’s Law.

The burdens this places on parolees are disruptive in a way that hinders their treatment, jeopardizes their health and undercuts their ability to find and maintain employment, significantly undermining any effort at rehabilitation.”

I regret having left the impression that my heart goes out to child molesters. My concern—and that of Davis, Arnold and everyone else who understands that Jessica’s Law was overly broad and unfair—is for people who’ve never preyed on children and aren’t considered at risk for reoffense but aren’t given the chance to get their lives back on track.

It’s awful what happened to the letter writer. We worry that his or her financial situation makes badly needed, high-quality therapy unattainable. But child sexual abuse and the toll it takes on its victims, particularly those who can’t afford the intensive treatment it takes to effect meaningful recovery, is a whole other matter.

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.