Saturday

California's Sex Offender Database: Is Your Home at Threat Level Red?

Quick. Can you recite the name, address, and crimes committed by the sexual offenders on your street or in your neighborhood? Apparently many people can. During the first 96 hours after the Megan's Law database was launched on December 15, 2004, there were 14 million hits to the website, out of a total of only 35 million people in California. In fact, the site at Meganslaw.ca.gov was so clogged that many received a message, "Server busy. Try again later."

Moraga has only one sexual offender registered, as do Toluca Lake and Malibu. After an extensive search, I found only one area with a better record. It is Bermuda Dunes, wherever the heck that is. Turns out it is near Palm Desert, and it reports no sexual offenders at all. The most dismal records I could find were Modesto and Sacramento. Modesto has 513 offenders and a population of 200,000; this equals one offender for every 389 people in the area. Sacramento has 1567 offenders and a population of 407,000, which means one offender for every 259 people.

The "Big Brother type" database is not good news for the 63,000 offenders. The American Civil Liberties Union claims this group may become the victims of vigilante attacks, plus it is argued that many of these ex-cons committed illegal acts decades ago, purport to be reformed, thus should not be revealed at all. There is also the possibility that those listed will never find a job when the Google search engine retrieves the database in association with their names.

But what truly concerns me is never mentioned: the ramifications for non-offenders. It is not politically correct to mention anything that could detract from the noble and worthy goal of protecting children, but what if the database does not indeed defend anyone and what if it destroys the lives and livelihoods of non-offenders by its mere existence? I argue it could.

The first potential problem relates to the safety of children. Parents or guardians may embrace a false sense of security when they check to find no offender resides near their home or child's school, and as a result, may let down their guard. A full 20 percent of those listed in the database--indicated by a red check mark beside their name--have secretly moved to undisclosed locations. Plus those accurately listed have cars. They can drive to Bermuda Dunes.

Not all sex offenders have been caught; in fact, exact addresses are available only for the 33,500 who have committed the most serious crimes, and the website omits information on 22,000 other offenders convicted of less serious sex crimes. It is never entirely safe to leave a child unattended, regardless of what a database says. Complacency could prove a dangerous trend.

Secondly, the Sexual Offender Database is riddled with inaccuracies; the Attorney General's website, which hosts the list, warns about possible gaps in information and the danger of relying on names and addresses to identify people. Because so many of those registered have not reported their change of address; their new neighbors are unaware of their presence, and their old communities are stigmatized.

Kyle and Pam Brown, an East Bay couple, experienced this problem first hand. They were shocked to find their address added to the database with a detailed map to their home. They had purchased the property 11 years earlier, unaware of the previous owner's crimes. Frightened of revenge attacks and embarrassed to be linked to the offender, the Browns asked that the inaccuracy be rectified immediately. The State Department of Justice said it could not replace an old address until it received a new one from the sex offender. Only after pressure and unflattering media reports did the authorities agree to delete the address in a timely manner.

Thirdly, it may sound shallow, but the database could seriously impact real estate values and the ability to sell ones property. There are people, such as the elderly, sick, or financially strapped, who may count on their equity or need to sell in a hurry. They may encounter difficulty if Mr. Sexual Offender lives next door, across the street, behind the backyard, or even three homes away.

Because the database can be accessed by the click of a computer mouse, buyers are likely to check before making an offer, and sellers may be required by law to disclose these "unsavory" neighbors. As a result, property owners may find themselves unable to sell or forced to reduce the list price dramatically. This is especially problematic for single family residences because home buyers, who often have kids, are less likely to be nonchalant about a questionable neighbor.

Over forty percent of the offenders listed in Napa, Santa Rosa, Tarzana, Burbank, Ojai, Mill Valley, Vacaville, San Pablo and Northridge live in houses rather than apartments. Ironically, it could become commonplace to pay offenders to relocate. Why not pay a convicted felon $5000 to move to the other side of town when it will result in a $25,000 - $50,000 increase in equity? As odd as it seems, offenders could find they profit from the negative exposure on the Internet.

Lastly, there is the fear factor. Evidence suggests that offenders are more likely to re-offend under stressful conditions, such as when they are ridiculed or unable to find work. In other words, our communities and children may be in greater jeopardy when these people are publicly exposed.

Fear can also impact non-offenders directly. Talk radio callers boast about driving their children past the "dangerous" homes in their area. What is the emotional impact of this exercise on the child? On the adult?

We are arguably a fearful nation. The nightly news is replete with warnings, violence and disasters; perhaps because instilling fear heightens advertisers' sales. Perhaps because it scores high ratings for the network.

For two years, we have been treated to Homeland Security's color-coded terror alerts, though the government itself admits that "raising the threat condition has economic, physical, and psychological effects on the nation." Does this really make us more secure? Do people still notice these alerts?

It may follow that the existence of an easily accessible sexual offender database might have a similar impact on our state, raising fears, achieving little and impacting real estate values. Will we be better protected by knowing that little Suzy's house is in a red zone, little Bobby's school is in an Orange Zone and little Billy walks his dog in a Yellow Zone? I suspect not, but hope I am wrong.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to an increasing need for housing for sex offenders and the communities latest responses to all of the bad, inaccurate and false news reports, I have been working on "where" these outcasts of society "can" live with the intent on purchasing or building safe houses where low risk parolees can live and find support in starting their lives over so they can once again become sober, law-abiding, productive tax-paying members of society. So far, the only possibilites seem to lie along San Fernando Road in Sylmar next to the railroad tracks on land deemed cause cancer and reproductive harm. I am trying to find a good real estate agent who can help me find multiple homes in the next couple of years. There are other possible locations but access to public transportation is a priority for obvious reasons.

Your article is the first objectively written report I have read by a community member and it shows that you are not being being blindly misled by all the media hype.

While I am not especially sympathetic to those who are guilty of committing these kinds of crimes, I am in no position to pass judgement as a result of my own journey through the so-called justice system. Almost 15 years ago, I made the most unfortunate mistake of sharing my apartment with a drug-addict and her two boys for a six month period. Three years later, one of the boys makes up a story and points to me as his abuser. After two trials (first one ending in a 9-3 favor to acquit) I was found guilty, served over 10 years in prison, and am currently, almost at the end of my parole.

Seven years ago, I received notice from my appointed trial counsel that my accuser had come forward and was now changing his story admitting that he lied. I even attracted the attention of the Innocence Project but they, unfortunately, determined that they could not become my attorney of record. My writ was denied in the Superior Court and I continue to seek appellate counsel to try one last time to attract the attention of the court and obtain an Order to Show Cause. If I fail, the consequences are obvious. I also recently lost a 6 figure job as a result of someone discovering me on the Megan's website. Most likely, this is why I have become and advocate for change in the public's misconceptions of sex offenders. My life is all but ruined and even if my conviction were to be overturned some day, the stench of my wrongful conviction will never go away. The lost years, the prosecution's lies in order to win, the accusations themselves, the despise of a general public, the limitations on my daily life and the loss of my recent job weigh heavy on my quality of life but I don't seem ready or able to accept defeat. I am tired though.

Did you know, contrary to all the media hype, that the Justice Departments Statistics show that 95% of all new sex crimes will be committed by a person who has never been convicted of a sex offense before? (See Department of Justice "Study on Sex Offender Recidivism: November 2003). Should we therefore start scaring the public into being afraid of family members who have not yet, but are more likely to offend than a non-relative or stranger?

In order to compile my reliable and objective data, I found a website under Geocities.com Legal Issues and Court Cases Affecting Sex Offenders and Truthful Recidivism. With all the politicians jumping on the bandwagon in order to protect children, the public and further demonize those have served their sentences and are now a part of the law-abiding community at great expense to the tax-payers, someone needs to stand up and say "wake up people" you are being lied to. The truth is that only 3.5% of convicted sex offenders will ever commit another sex offense (not to be confused with recidivism rate which only means they violated some rule imposed on them by parole. Only the courts should have the ability to determine who is deemed dangerous, more likely to offend or high-risk. For those people, laws are in effect which should not even allow these people out of prison.

My apologies for going on and on. Thank you once again for displaying your ability to remain objective in the face of hysteria and political hype.

1:25 AM  
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