Tracking and Treating California's Paroled Sex Offenders

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Parole agent Fernando Mata reviews "face sheets" with the details of registered sex offenders before he pays them an unannounced visit.  (Scott Shafer/KQED)

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), there are about 6,000 sex offenders on parole in California. When it comes to public image, you’d have to place them near the very bottom of the totem pole.

Their crimes range from rape to indecent exposure. And when they’re paroled to San Francisco, it falls to Fernando Mata to keep track of them and make sure they’re not a threat to public safety.

“In my job, I have to treat everybody the same,” says Mata. “It doesn't matter if you're indecent exposure or child molest. You're still a person and you're still here to get the services that you need. I have a job to do, and that's all I can do."

Mata has worked with the CDCR for eight years, the last 5½  with the parole divison. Of his sex offender "clients,” he says you can’t really judge from appearances.

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“People like to think of sex offenders -- a child molester looks like this and a rapist looks like this,” he notes. “Not all people that look like monsters are monsters. And not all people that are monsters look like they are. It goes both ways.”

At age 32, Mata is Hollywood-handsome, with a trim beard and a very low-key manner. He's dressed casually in jeans and a bulky black hoodie that hides his badge, tactical vest and the .40-caliber Smith & Wesson gun attached to his waist.

On a recent weekday morning, I rode with him in a state-issued Ford Fusion as we headed off for a few unannounced visits to sex offenders on parole. I ask what a typical day is like. Mata says he's always in an investigative mode.

”As soon as I open my computer, I’m looking to see who’s in a low battery,” he says, referring to the GPS devices that sex offenders have to wear while they’re on parole. “Whose charging history looks different than it does yesterday? You know, and if so, why? What’s happening?

Mata says each agent he supervises in San Francisco keeps tabs on about 30-35 sex offenders. The agents look for changes in daily tracking patterns -- hints that could point to things like drug use or staying out all night, potential signs of trouble.

Fernando Mata starts his day as a supervisor for parole agents who track registered sex offenders in San Francisco.
Fernando Mata starts his day as a supervisor for parole agents who track registered sex offenders in San Francisco. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Our first stop is an apartment building in an up-and-coming industrial neighborhood near the edge of San Francisco Bay. We’re greeted by a friendly if slightly nervous-seeming man named Dan (the state asked us to use just first names with the sex offenders we met).

"Oh, there he is,” Mata says.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Dan responds. “I was going to send you an email today.”

Agent Mata ask how things are going.

“Fantastic," Dan says. "Well, sort of. Come on in.”

Inside, Mata walks around, opening drawers, poking around for things that might raise a flag. Then he asks Dan to lift his pant leg so he can see the GPS bracelet on his ankle.

“How's the device working?” Mata asks.

“Oh fine,” Dan replies. “I got a new charger. You know, the cord thing.”

Mata asks how many charges he has, and Dan tells him just one. Sex offender parolees have to keep these tracking devices on at all times, batteries charged.

Mata introduces me, and I ask Dan what he did to get him in trouble.

“I umm, inappropriately touched my daughter,” he says. “She was under 14. I don't know how much detail you want me to go into, um, but she was under 14, she was young. She was too young. And it was stupid.”

I ask him how he feels after more than two years on parole, still having to wear the bracelet until his parole is up.

“I'm used to it after all this time.” Dan says. “But it is an annoyance. So it's OK, I wish it was smaller. I can never wear shorts if I don't want it to be exposed, because that puts me at risk out there.”

At risk because child molesters can easily become targets themselves.

Dan is a professional photographer -- and his apartment is pretty nice -- not the kind of "living on the edge" I imagined for a sex offender. He lives with a girlfriend. His parole conditions require telling her about his past and place limitations on what he can do -- and who he can see. No contact with anyone under the age of 18.

“The difficulty there is I do have a granddaughter who’s 5 or 6 who lives down in San Luis Obispo with my youngest son, and I've never met her,” Dan says. “She was born when I was in custody, and I can't wait until I'm able to meet her.

"That'll be the first thing that I do is go let her meet grandpa, you know?” he says, laughing in a way that makes me uncomfortable.

Dan spent more than four years in prison for molesting his wife's daughter. Under California law, his name and address are listed on a state website. I ask him if he wonders whether any of the neighbors in his building know about his record.

“I told them, he didn't know, but I told them 'cause I do walk their dog. So I told them the whole story and they were fine with it,” he says.

I ask what he means by “fine with it.”

"That means, they're OK,” he adds. “They know me as a person. They know that I'm not an extreme pedophile.”

I’m struck by how “normal” Dan seems. It’s almost unsettling. Back in the car, I ask Mata about it.

“They do come in all shapes and sizes,” Mata acknowledges. “This particular individual looks like your next-door neighbor. Somebody you would never expect.”

Our next parolee -- Diarras -- lives with his grandfather in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. His crime: Exposing himself to women five times over the course of seven years in parks and libraries.

“My offenses weren't towards any kids or anything like that,” Diarras says. “I just flashed my penis in front of women. You know, I don't mind talking about it because I knew who I was. I knew what kind of person I was before all this.”

 Darrias is quick to talk about what happened when he was 4 years old -- something his aunt did to him that he says contributed to his criminal behavior.

“I remember she used to take showers and have me take showers and have me lay on top of her,” he remembers. “But being 4 years old, I don't think nothing wrong with that. But I didn't have any outlets. People to talk to. I didn't have that.”

Now he’s part of  “Sharper Future,” a structured treatment program for sex offenders.

Diarras went through a tough period after his conviction, spiraling down into depression.

“Went to jail, like I said. I never understood the importance of staying out of trouble, so I had some violations, went back a few times. And my last time, after I got out, my Agent Mata got me a job at this hotel, and I've been on the straight and narrow ever since.”

That’s the thing about parole agents. They almost seem like social workers who really want to see their clients go clean and stay out of trouble.

Darrias seems resigned to being a registered sex offender -- for the rest of his life.

I don't care about what society thinks, as long as I know what my family thinks. They love me and I know who I am, I'm fine with it,” he says. “I wish it didn't happen, don't get me wrong, but this is the card I'm dealt with. So it is what it is.”

Sex offenders as a group don't generate much sympathy, and it's easy to understand why. Under Jessica’s Law, passed by voters in 1986, all sex offenders were forbidden to live within a half-mile of parks or schools, regardless of their offense. But the California Supreme Court recently struck down that blanket limitation, saying it could be applied only on a case-by-case basis.

That means more sex offenders will be living in neighborhoods that were off-limits to them until recently.

“I tell them, 'Take advantage of all these services we offer you while you’re on parole,' ” Mata says. “Once we’re gone, they’re on their own.”