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Bill would reform CA sex offender registry

by Seth Hemmelgarn

State Senator Scott Wiener
State Senator Scott Wiener  

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener has introduced a bill that would create a tiered registry for California sex offenders, meaning some could leave the state's lifetime registry earlier than planned.

Under state law, all sex offenders currently have to register for life, regardless of how serious their offense was. That means the database includes gay men who were arrested decades ago for having sex in public parks, alongside other people who are on the list for serious offenses such as violent crimes against children.

The registry already includes more than 100,000 people, so law enforcement officials have had to waste time handling paperwork related to low-risk offenders, and it hasn't effectively kept people from committing future crimes, according to Wiener's office.

Wiener's legislation â€" Senate Bill 421 â€" would create a tiered system based on the severity of the crime, the risk of sexual reoffending, and the person's criminal history.

The Senate Public Safety Committee, on which Wiener sits, passed SB 421 by a vote of 6-1 Tuesday. Senator Jeff Stone (R-Riverside) was the opponent.

Under the bill, people convicted of misdemeanors or non-violent felonies could be eligible for 10 years on the registry, and people convicted of serious or violent sex offenses could be eligible for 20 years.

High-risk offenders, including sexually violent predators, repeat violent offenders, and people convicted of sex offenses that require a life term would still have lifetime registration.

Wiener (D-San Francisco) said at Tuesday's committee hearing that the registry's had a "damaging impact on the LGBT community."

The list includes gay men in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who had "sex in a park 40 or 50 years ago," he said. "To this day, they are still on the registry."

He added that "after decades of research, we now have a much better sense of who is high risk and who isn't," but the current registration system doesn't even attempt "to account for this distinction."

Most of the people on the registry are at "low risk" of reoffending, Wiener said, and being listed currently presents "lifetime barriers to stable housing" and other problems.

He also said that California is one of only four states where all sex offender registrants are on the list for life.

"Federal law requires states to have a tiered approach," Wiener said. "California continues to flagrantly violate that federal law."

Removal from the registry wouldn't be automatic. People in the first two tiers would have to petition a court to be removed from the list at the end of their registration period. The courts would be able to deny petitions under certain circumstances, and the district attorney would be allowed to request hearings to oppose petitions.

Local law enforcement agencies could still inform their communities about offenders in any tier under some circumstances.

Originally, as previously reported, the bill was known as Senate Bill 695 and was authored by gay state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). Tuesday, Lara's spokesman told the Bay Area Reporter that with Lara's full portfolio of legislation, including single-payer health care legislation and other important criminal justice reforms, "he is glad that Senator Wiener has introduced SB 421 to champion the effort."

 

Broad support

SB 421's sponsors include Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

At Tuesday's hearing, Brad McCartt, who's with the Los Angeles DA's office, said that in its current form, the registry "has become meaningless. ... We need to have the purpose of the list restored" so that authorities can "quickly find suspects" and try to prevent children from being harmed.

McCartt added that someone's shortened registration period wouldn't begin until after they're released from custody, so that if someone gets out of prison after serving a 15-year sentence, they would still have to be on the registry for 20 years if they were on the second tier.

Equality California is also sponsoring SB 421.

In a letter to Wiener, EQCA Executive Director Rick Zbur said the statewide LGBT advocacy group "is co-sponsoring this bill to address in particular the unfair circumstance of LGBT people who were targeted and often entrapped on charges that required registration as a sex offender when their actual actions hurt no one, including for simply engaging in same-sex contact when that action was criminalized in the past. These members of the LGBT community were required to register as sex offenders for life even though their convictions are now decades old and the law and its enforcement have changed, and the basis for many of these arrests was due to anti-LGBT discrimination and police entrapment."

Spokespeople for San Francisco District Attorney George Gascâ€"n didn't provide comment on whether he supports the bill.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi's office is in favor of Wiener's legislation.

"The proposed bill is a win-win," Deputy Public Defender Sandy Feinland, who heads the agency's unit dealing with sex cases, said in response to an email from the B.A.R. "It allows law enforcement to focus its resources on serious offenders who pose a real risk. At the same time, it eliminates the lifetime banishment from society for minor offenders who turn their lives around."

Marc Klaas, whose young daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and murdered more than 20 years ago, was one of the handful of people who spoke against SB 421 at Tuesday's hearing.

"The real victims here seem to have no voice," Klaas said, and "this whole idea of victimizing sex offenders" who decided to harm others is "offensive in every way."

The bill next goes to the Appropriations Committee.

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