SACRAMENTO, Calif. >> California’s sex offender registry didn’t protect Chelsea King. A registered child predator abducted, raped and murdered the 17-year-old high school senior after she set off for a jog on the trails around Lake Hodges in San Diego County in 2010.
Authorities used DNA to track down John Albert Gardner III, who confessed to killing Chelsea and another teen, Amber DuBois, who had gone missing near San Diego a year before on her way to school.
Chelsea’s father, Brent King, has been fighting ever since for stricter punishments and closer monitoring of sex offenders whose victims were children. So it might surprise some that he thinks California should end its practice of requiring all sex offenders to register with authorities every year for the rest of their lives.
“Right now, we treat all sex offenders the same, and they’re not,” said King, who moved to Chicago with his wife and son after Chelsea was murdered.
Questions over which offenders should register for life and which should come off the registry are at the center of a debate over legislation to overhaul the state’s massive sex offender registry, used by law enforcement and largely available to the public online. Many law enforcement and advocacy groups are actually backing the changes, but victims and their families are divided. King said he has mixed feelings about the legislation.
SB421 by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would allow most sex offenders to come off the registry 10 to 20 years after they are released from prison, so long as they have not committed another serious or violent felony or sex crime.
The bill, which already has passed the Senate, would remove lifetime registry requirements for even violent offenders. Offenders who have committed rape, lewd acts with children or forcible sodomy would be able to petition the court 20 years after their release to be removed from California’s sex offender registry.
Offenders who committed misdemeanor battery, indecent exposure and felony possession of child pornography would be allowed to petition for removal from the registry after 10 years if they keep clean records.
Lifetime registration would still be required for offenders convicted of repeat felony child molestation, kidnapping with intent to commit a sex crime and second offenses of violent or serious sex crimes.
The legislation allows for a one-time purge for those whose convictions are at least 30 years old if they have kept clean records and have not had multiple serious or violent offenses that would require lifetime registration. And offenders convicted as juveniles would be required to appear on the registry for five to 10 years, depending on the seriousness of their crime.
But while some critics find it unsettling that the state would stop monitoring rapists and child molesters, the bill has support from victim advocate groups, law enforcement and academics who point to studies that have shown that the risk to re-offend drops off precipitously over the years, and that law enforcement should focus their resources on those most likely to commit new crimes.
“This fixes a really terrible problem in existing law — which is the complete failure to make any distinction between people who are classified as having a sex offense,” said Ira Ellman, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society. “To throw them into one pot where they register until they die just makes no sense.”
King agrees. He said a system that accurately identifies who is a high risk for re-offending and purges low-level offenders “could have helped” in his daughter’s case. But, allowing a child molester to come off the registry is where the bill loses King’s support. The bill is expected to have a hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.
“If you rape a child when you were 25 and you are now 45 and you’re wiped off the registry, yeah no thanks,” King said. “You should never come off.”
His daughter’s killer had been convicted of molesting a 13-year-old neighbor in 2000 in an attack at his home where he sexually assaulted and beat her. That landed him on the sex offender registry when he was released from prison in 2005. Supporters of the bill say the new system would allow law enforcement to better monitor sex offenders like Gardner, instead of spending most of their time and budget processing registration paperwork in their offices.
“Right now, there is a catchall concept, and that is overworking the entire system,” King said. “I like that there is a discussion about this, but it can’t be driven entirely by statistics because even a 1 percent failure rate is terrible.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the state’s sex offender registry, which requires sex offenders to disclose where they live to law enforcement agencies. The 1947 state law was the first in the nation, and initially was used as a tracking tool for law enforcement.
A second registry was created as a public website in 2004 under Megan’s Law, which is named after a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed by a convicted child molester who lived across the street from her family without their knowledge. The public registry is intended to be a community notification tool and specifically states that it is not intended to be a punishment since offenders on the registry have already served their sentences.
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.
But law enforcement and scholars argue that California’s registry is so bloated — 100,000 sex offenders and counting — that it’s become unwieldy and meaningless and should be thinned out. As Ellman, the law professer at UC Berkeley, put it, California’s registry is a giant haystack hiding the dangerous needles.
“If you were to try to design a bill to reflect the data more accurately, no one should be on the registry for more than 20 years,” said Ellman, citing research that shows nearly anyone who has been crime-free for 20 years is a low risk to re-offend, regardless of their original offense.
“Legislators are moving the ball in the right direction, even if they aren’t moving the ball as far as it should go,” Ellman said.
The state is one of four in the country that requires sex offenders to register with local law enforcement each year, within five days of their birthday, for life no matter how many decades they are removed from their last sex crime. California’s registry includes 650 sex offenders whose last convictions were in the 1940s and 1950s, according to data compiled by the California Sex Offender Management Board. About 22,000 people have been on the registry for more than 30 years.
Law enforcement agencies say they spend two-thirds of their budgets for sex offender supervision on the registration paperwork sex offenders are required to complete. That’s time spent in an office that could be used to monitor high-risk sex offenders in communities, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office argued.
One longtime advocate for registry reform is Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who is chair of the California Sex Offender Management Board. Another supporter is the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“We believe that the resources currently allocated to managing lifetime registrants could be more effectively used by focusing on those at the greatest risk to re-offend,” wrote Sandra Henriquez, executive director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
One sex offender, a 40-year-old man who asked that his name not be included out of fear that he would be targeted, said each time he has moved, his Facebook feed is filled with people warning that he is in their neighborhood. He was convicted as a 19-year-old in El Dorado County for having unlawful sex with a 15-year-old.
“I have to Google search who hires sex offenders,” the man said. “I didn’t have a rich dad who could get this taken care of. When this happens, you are at the mercy of public opinion.”
An 88-year-old woman in Fremont said the bill the Legislature is considering is her last hope to help her 37-year-old grandson. The woman asked that her name not be included in fear that her grandson would be identified. She said her grandson is a heavily medicated schizophrenic who was convicted 15 years ago of battery on a child after he knocked over a store display while drunk and put his hand up the skirt of a 17-year-old clerk attempting to pick up the mess.
Now, in failing health, she said she can’t move into a retirement home because her grandson would have no place to live.
“After 15 years, isn’t that long enough for what the offense was?” she asked.
Equality California, the LGBT advocacy group, is sponsoring the bill. Rick Zbur, executive director at Equality California, wrote in a letter supporting SB421 that LGBT people have been “targeted and often entrapped on charges” that required lifetime registration as a sex offender for “engaging in same-sex contact when that action was criminalized in the past.”
“California’s registry has gone too long without the benefits of reform,” Zbur wrote.
But not all victims agree. Michelle Morales, a 28-year-old sex abuse victim from Woodland Hills in Los Angeles County, said the registry should be for life and include anyone who commits a sex offense. As a child, she was repeatedly molested over seven years by her mother’s boyfriend. She didn’t report it to police until she was 25, but was able to work with police to record the man confessing to his crimes.
Just because a person on the registry doesn’t have a new conviction doesn’t mean they haven’t committed a new offense, she said.
“It may just mean that there is a victim who hasn’t come forward yet,” Morales said. “Staying on that list could save someone a lifetime of trauma.”