November 4, 2010

Residency restrictions illegal, Calif judge rules

"Court is not a potted plant"

Breaking news from the Los Angeles Times:

Saying sex offenders are being forced to choose between prison and homelessness, a Los Angeles judge issued an opinion this week blocking enforcement of provisions a state law restricting how close those offenders can live from parks or schools.

Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza issued the 10-page ruling after four registered sex offenders petitioned the court, arguing that the legislation known as Jessica's Law was unconstitutional.

He said the court had received about 650 habeas corpus petitions raising similar legal issues, and that hundreds more were being prepared....

"The court is not a 'potted plant' and need not sit idly by in the face of immediate, ongoing and significant violations of parolee constitutional rights," Espinoza wrote.

Proposition 83, which is better known as Jessica's Law and was overwhelmingly passed by state voters in 2006, imposes strict residency requirements on sex offenders, including requirements forbidding them from residing within 2,000 feet of any public or private school or park where children regularly gather….

"Rather than protecting public safety, it appears that the sharp rise in homelessness rates in sex offenders on active parole in Los Angeles County actually undermines public safety," wrote Espinoza, who is the supervising judge of the Los Angeles County criminal courts. "The evidence presented suggests that despite lay belief, a sex offender parolee's residential proximity to a school or park where children regularly gather does not bear on the parolee's likelihood to commit a sexual offense against a child." …

New report on parolee recidivism

Meanwhile, California's Department of Corrections has released a new report on recidivism among parolees.

The state's recidivism rates remain among the highest in the United States, the report found, with more than two-thirds of paroled prisoners back behind bars within three years. Younger men and those with shorter sentences had the highest rates.

Almost three in four new imprisonments were for parole violations rather than new crimes, emphasizing the need for alternatives to incarceration for technical violations.

The bright lining is in the recidivism rates of sex offenders, such as those in Los Angeles who cannot find a place to live.

Parolees flagged as sex offenders had lower recidivism rates than other prisoners. And only about 5 percent of those who were sent back to prison had committed a new sex crime. The broad majority were returned for parole violations or non-sexual crimes.

These low sexual recidivism rates are consistent with correctional data from elsewhere in the United States. Unfortunately, as the Los Angeles judge alluded to, thanks to a few rare but highly publicized cases (remember the "black swans"?), the public has not gotten this message.