Is It Time to Reform California's Sex Offender Registry?

(Scott Pacaldo/Flickr)
California is one of just four states that requires sex offenders to register for the rest of their lives. (Scott Pacaldo/Flickr)

By Tara Siler

Back in 1947 California became the first state to require sex offenders to register with law enforcement after being released from prison. Now there are just under 100,000 sex offenders on the state's lifetime registry -- most of whom can be found on the state's public website. But here's what a lot of people don't know: California is one of just four states requiring all sex offenders to register for the rest of their lives.

The state board that oversees the registry believes it's time to overhaul the registry to make it smaller and easier to spot those at high risk of reoffending.

"K" -- as he wants to be identified -- is a case in point. He was added to the registry last year when he was released from prison. In 2009, he was convicted of multiple felony charges, including lewd and lascivious conduct.

While K claims the touching was consensual, the woman said it wasn’t. In any case, the woman was developmentally disabled and K was her caregiver.


"The bottom line," K told me, "is I believe in law, and if I made a mistake I’ll pay for it, which I did."

K spent more than three years in prison. He says he had no prior criminal record, and that the state considers him a very low risk to reoffend. He's not, he says, a hard-core sexual predator.

"You know, not all of us are the same way," he says.

The state’s Sex Offender Management Board agrees with that statement. The board wants to prioritize sex offenders on the registry, based on the type of crime committed and their risk of re-offending. Under a recent proposal, some would have to register for 10 years, some for 20 and some for life. K, for example, would probably be dropped from the registry after 20 years -- when he would be in his 80s -- if he doesn't reoffend. This "tiered system" is already in use by many other states, including Nevada, for example.

Tom Tobin is a clinical psychologist who works with sex offenders and is vice chair of the California Sex Offender Management Board, which oversees the registry. He supports the proposed overhaul, saying that the term "sex offenders" suggests that the likelihood of reoffending is always high.

"While the reality is that, for most of them, the offense happened years ago," Tobin says, "sometimes many years ago, and they have not reoffended. So to call them 'sex offenders' is not a very accurate use of language, and one I think makes us distort reality."

In fact, Tobin says, 95 percent of solved sex crimes are not committed by people on the registry, and most sex offenses are perpetrated by someone the victim knows -- not a stranger.

Even some law enforcement officials are questioning the value of the lifetime registry. Bradley McCartt is a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney with the sex crimes division. He says the current registry isn't helping keep the public safe.

"Let’s say you have a kidnapped child," McCartt says. "Going to that registry has all but become meaningless because when people look at it, you basically have 98,000 people to look at, as opposed to better focus on who your suspect might be, to quickly act to try and save that child."

McCartt says that by creating a tiered registry, more attention and resources could be trained on monitoring high-risk offenders, and a lot less time could be taken up with less risky offenders, including young men who had consensual sex with their minor girlfriends or men who merely urinated in public.

'Gambling with Lives'

Marc Klaas argues that the tiered approach is risky. Klaas is the founder of KlaasKids Foundation, named after his daughter, Polly, who was kidnapped and murdered in 1993. He says he'll fight any major changes to the registry. "This is a small subset that can be dealt with without a sweeping overhaul of the entire system," he says.

Klass has a strong ally in Nina Salerno with California Crime Victims United. "I think a tiered system is gambling with lives," she says.

Both Salerno and Klaas don't trust how the state says it would decide who is likely to reoffend. "The risk assessment tools deserve a lot of scrutiny themselves," Klaas says.

He cites the case of John Gardner, a registered sex offender who, while on parole, was considered a low-to-moderate risk. Then in 2010 he was convicted of raping and murdering two teenage girls near San Diego.

But Tom Tobin of the California Sex Offender Management Board defends the state’s risk assessment tool. He says it's similar to that used by the insurance industry.

"They are the first to admit," Tobin says, "they cannot predict with perfect accuracy whether or not someone will have a future automobile accident or someone is going to die at a certain age. On the other hand, they can come very, very close."

The main assessment tool used by the state spots those likely to reoffend about 75 percent of the time. That number increases when combined with other risk factors. But the margin of error has scared many lawmakers away from backing a bill to change the registry.

Democratic Assemblymember Tom Ammiano has twice tried and failed to pass legislation creating a tiered sex offender registry, but he hasn't had a lot of success. "This isn’t a demographic that people feel warm and fuzzy about," he notes.

Ammiano is termed out of office this year and  says he doesn’t have time to try again to pass the reform. Supporters are hoping another lawmaker will step forward, but it's likely to be tough -- especially in an election year when no one wants to be seen as going easy on sex offenders.