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Zone affects 7 in 10 county sex offenders

Originally published 8/19/2005

Most schools and parks in Sacramento County have at least one registered sex offender living within easy walking distance.

Many counselors who treat sex offenders say that is no big deal - almost no offenders, they say, are likely to attack a schoolchild at random.

But others say more needs to be done to protect kids. A measure called "Jessica's Law," backed by the governor this week and pending in the Legislature, would make it illegal for sex offenders to live within 2,000 feet of a school or park.

Roughly seven out of every 10 Sacramento County sex offenders with addresses published by the state live that close, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of state data.

Jessica's Law would render cities in Sacramento County mostly off-limits to sexual offenders, effectively banishing them to rural parts of the county or into thin wedges between roughly 500 public and private schools and 350 parks. More than 1,200 registered sex offenders in Sacramento County would have to move, the Bee's analysis found.

"That's sort of the point," said Cristina Rivera, spokeswoman for the Campaign for Child Safety, the group that is working to get Jessica's Law on the ballot in 2006. "I don't think any parent would want a sexually violent predator near their home."

Backers of the measure might not have time to get it passed this session - there's less than a month left - but the issue is not going away. A private group is working hard on a 2006 ballot initiative with the same restrictions. And a number of bills, including at least one other still pending, have been introduced during the past few years that would restrict where sex offenders can live.

It's not just a California phenomenon. Measures like Jessica's Law are taking off across the nation. Several states - Arkansas, Iowa and Tennessee, to name a few - have passed measures within the past few years restricting where sex offenders can live, most of which mention schools, parks or day-care centers.

Counselors who treat sex offenders - and some sex offenders themselves - say such measures often are ineffective and unfair.

The large majority of registered sex offenders are not predators "following kids home from school," said Gerry Blasingame, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Redding who has been treating sex offenders for 20 years.

Most child sex offenses occur within a family, Blasingame said. Only a small percentage are committed by strangers taking advantage of a child at or near school, he said.

Residency laws, Blasingame said, shouldn't lump sex offenders who pose little risk to children in the same category as the few offenders who might actually target a random child.

Niki Delson, a licensed clinical social worker who has treated sex offenders for 30 years, said forcing sex offenders to move away from most of society can be a dangerous proposition.

"Isolation is a high-risk factor for sex offenders," said Delson, who works in Humboldt County and is an instructor for the Center for Human Services at UC Davis.

Chris Wetzel, a registered sex offender who lives in midtown Sacramento, would hate it if the state forced him to move, but feels powerless. Wetzel, who is 52 and married, said he did time at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center a decade ago on charges of lewd or lascivious acts with a child. He's been off parole for years.

"No, I wouldn't like it, but who could I fight?" he asked, adding that he plans to move out of state soon anyway for unrelated reasons. "Sex offenders are perverted, sick people and who's going to fight for them? I mean, you could have a ... murderer living around you and not know it.

"Understand me, I have not reoffended, and I don't get credit for that, and that's why I probably would be upset if I had to move."

Jake Goldenflame, a convicted child molester who lives in San Francisco, has written a book about sex offenses and speaks often about the topic. He says expanding the radius where sex offenders can't live will do little to prevent further sex offenses.

"So I can't live there, I have a car, I have feet or I can go to a mall, and more importantly, a computer," he said. "A predatory sex offender won't be stopped by an arbitrary line."

More effective, said Goldenflame, who often testifies before legislative committees, would be a no-trespassing clause.

"As a sex offender, I don't have any business on the grounds of a public school," he said.

Goldenflame, Wetzel, Delson and Blasingame all spoke to The Bee about residency laws a few weeks before the governor and others unveiled Jessica's Law on Tuesday.

The proposal would introduce several changes:

* Expand the buffer around schools to 2,000 feet instead of 1,320 feet;

* Greatly increase the number of offenders to whom a buffer zone would apply - all registered sex offenders, not just those on parole for certain sex offenses involving children;

* Cover all schools and parks where children play, while current law applies only to K-8 schools.

Supporters of such measures say they are justified by the high possibility that sex offenders will repeat their crimes.

"There ought to be zones of greater safety for children," said state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, who, along with his wife, Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, introduced the measure.

The roughly 1,200 sex offenders in Sacramento County living within 2,000 feet of a school or park found by The Bee do not include hundreds more for whom the state does not publish an exact address.

Many Sacramento County schools have multiple sex offenders living within 2,000 feet. Around downtown's Sacramento Montessori School, for example, at least 12 sex offenders fall within the 2,000-foot radius and would be required to move.

"The sexual offender, the sexual predator is a different kind of criminal," said Marilyn Prosser, an administrative consultant at the Sacramento Montessori School. "This is a criminal of a different character."

Creating a buffer zone around schools won't solve the problem alone, though, Prosser added: Sex offenders can still travel. That's why schools also need lots of information about sex offenders living in the neighborhood, she said.

The 2,000-foot buffer zone wasn't proposed arbitrarily, George Runner said. Iowa has a buffer zone of similar size that has withstood legal challenge, he said, adding that he believes offenders would still be able to find places to live in urban areas.

Jessica's Law is not the only residency requirement pending in the state Legislature. Assembly member Rudy Bermudez, D-Norwalk, has a bill that would add high schools to the current quarter-mile buffer zone for certain parolees. Allowing many sex offenders on parole to live near high schools "creates a target-rich environment for them," Bermudez said.

Jessica's Law is named for Jessica Lunsford, a Florida 9-year-old who earlier this year was taken from her bed by a convicted sex offender, molested and later found dead.

ADDRESSING OFFENDERSTo determine how many sex offenders live close to a school or park, The Bee used addresses for offenders posted on the state's Megan's Law Web site - www.meganslaw.ca.gov. The addresses were copied in late June. The state does not post addresses for hundreds of local registered sex offenders convicted of certain crimes. Only sex offenders with addresses posted online were included in the paper's analysis.

The locations of Sacramento County's public schools were taken from the California Department of Education. Private school locations were obtained from www.greatschools.net. Park locations were taken from the Web sites of cities or regional park districts in the county.

In some cases, address information was inadequate to allow mapping. This was especially true of parks - about 23 percent of parks in the county could not be mapped. About 95 percent of sex offenders and schools were mapped.

Park and school buffer zones were drawn from addresses rather than from their outer boundaries.

The Bee's Phillip Reese can be reached at (916) 321-1137 or preese@sacbee.com.

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