SACRAMENTO — The board that oversees the state’s sex-offender laws has a seemingly unconventional public safety pitch: Californians would be safer if the sex-offender registry were pared down.
The California Sex Offender Management Board wants to eliminate lifetime registration requirements for some sex offenders. It’s proposing that lower-risk sex offenders be removed from the registry 10 to 20 years after their crimes to make the list more relevant and focused on higher-risk offenders. That way, law enforcement and the public can better differentiate between offenders who pose the greatest risks and those not likely to re-offend.
But the board needs a change in law to do this, and the idea is opposed by some crime victim groups. It’s also not an easy feat to find an elected official to carry a bill that eases restrictions on sex offenders.
The board, headed by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, has recommended paring down the list for the past eight years, to no avail. In the coming months, it will launch an outreach campaign in hopes of calming public fears about the proposal, then look for a lawmaker willing to author a bill next year.
“If you say to people that sex offenders don’t have to register after 10 years, they freak out,” O’Malley said. “But we have police treating the child rapist who was just paroled the same as the guy who committed indecent exposure 50 years ago. There aren’t unlimited resources; we need to prioritize where they put their attention.”
California is one of four states that requires sex offenders to register for life, which has contributed to the state’s ballooning registry. The state’s registry has 74,000 people on it. Another 22,000 sex offenders will be required to register once they’re released from prison.
The state operates two registries — one created as a tracking tool for law enforcement that has been around for nearly 70 years and another that was created in 2004 as a public website under Megan’s Law. Not all sex offenders are required to appear on the public registry, such as in some first time-offenses or in cases where the victim was a relative.
Once a person is required by a judge to register as a sex offender, there are few ways to have the name removed from the registry. For example, California’s registry includes 650 sex offenders whose last convictions were in the 1940s and 1950s, according to data compiled by the Sex Offender Management Board. Another 3,000 were last convicted of a sex crime in the 1960s and 1970s.
Tiered system sought
Under the board’s recommendation, California would create a tiered system that allows people convicted of misdemeanor sex crimes to be removed from the law enforcement and public registries after 10 years if there’s no other conviction. Under the second tier, a risk assessment already used by the state would determine whether people convicted of a felony sex crime could be removed from the registries after 20 years without a subsequent crime.
O’Malley said the third tier would require lifetime registration for those with multiple victims or whose risk assessment indicates they are likely to re-offend.
Forty-six states already use some kind of tiered system, O’Malley said.
If some some sex offenders were removed from the law enforcement registry, the board said, officers would no longer have to track sex offenders who have been considered low-risk for at least a decade. With officers in some cities assigned to monitor hundreds of sex offenders, narrowing who is required to register allows law enforcement to focus on those who need the most monitoring.
Removing sex offenders from the public registry creates an incentive for those who have been crime-free for at least a decade so that they can begin to lead normal lives, said Tom Tobin, a Bay Area psychologist who works with sex offenders.
“Less important to some people, but not to be sneezed at, is why continue to destroy these people’s lives? There is no point and no benefits,” said Tobin, who is vice chair of the Sex Offender Management Board.
Citing right to know
The tiered system, however, is opposed by many victim groups, such as Crime Victims United, who argue that purposely shielding the pasts of sex offenders does not serve the public’s best interest. Those groups say the focus should remain on justice for the victims, given the lifelong impact of sex abuse.
“It’s an issue where the public should be able to know their children are safe,” said Nina Salario, board member of Crime Victims United. “Someone could have been a coach and committed a less egregious offense, but egregious enough to get on the registry, and after they are off the registry they can go back to coaching.”
Former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, tried twice to pass legislation creating the tiered system in California, with his first bill garnering 19 ayes among the 82 Assembly members. His second bill stalled in committee.
Already, there’s a bill this year that would expand the registry.
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore (Riverside County), said AB2569 closes an exemption in the registry many parents may find alarming — the policy that sex offenders who are convicted of molesting their own children, siblings or grandchildren are able to be granted a waiver from appearing on the publicly searchable registry if the crime was not penetration or oral copulation.
The state Department of Justice said that over the past two years, 121 sex offenders were removed from the public registry, also known as Megan’s Law, because their victim was a family member.
Tool for parents
Melendez said excluding the information from the public registry takes away a tool parents have when researching their neighborhood or deciding whether to allow their child to spend the night at a friend’s house.
“For me, I think if you are sick enough to do this to one of your own family members, you won’t hesitate to do it to someone else,” said Melendez, who is vice chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee. “I don’t see why we should keep the public in the dark about who in their neighborhood may be a potential threat to their child. When my daughter goes to a friend’s house you better believe I check that website, knowing that it won’t tell me everything.”
Melendez said she’s heard arguments in support of eliminating lifetime registration requirements for some sex offenders.
“I’m hesitant, but open-minded enough to listen,” she said.
–Melody Gutierrez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter@MelodyGutierrez