A federal judge declared Colorado’s sex-offender registry unconstitutional earlier this month, ruling that making sex-offenders' addresses, ages and photos accessible to the public is cruel and unusual punishment. Now, an effort to reform California’s own sex-offender registry is raising questions and concerns.
When you meet him, Fred Ross seems like the kind of guy you want to root for. He just got married. Collages by his two-year-old nephew fill his kitchen wall. He’s applying for his pilot’s license.
“It’s like when you first get your driver’s license and you’re able to venture around in the world and go explore,” Ross says as he shows off a video of his first solo flight. You can hear his trainer joke around from below to loosen him up. “He’s making funny jokes, making funny faces. I’m sweating bullets,” Ross says.
We’re not using his real name to protect his identity, because if you Googled him, you’d learn that Ross is a sex offender.
You’d also find his home address, photo, and the crime he pleaded guilty to.
His home has been vandalized and he says it’s because of his past and the information in the sex offender registry.
How did it end up like that?
When Ross was 19, he pled guilty to child molestation. He was homeless, and doing a lot of drugs. One night, after some hard partying, he wandered back to his mother’s house. His stepsister and stepsister’s friend were there.
“I pretty much felt up my stepsister’s friend, and you know, she was sleeping, so she came to, and was like, 'What are you doing?' And I was like, I don't know, what am I doing? I think that’s when I snapped out of it,” Ross says.
The victim was less than 14 years old. Her parents called the cops. Ross spent about a year in jail. He says he never intended to hurt anyone.
“Hopefully, she was able to get through it, and have a decent life. I had a lot of stuff going on, I was pretty emotionally disturbed at the time,” he says. “I was dealing with being homeless and just having a lot of problems in life.”
A lifetime of being watched
More than a decade later, when Ross finally sought out drug treatment, he was rejected from rehab programs, because he’s a registered sex offender.
“I was devastated. I was like, You can't take me because I'm on the registry? That has nothing to do with what's going on here,” Ross says.
Ross got sober on his own, turned his life around. But every year, cops still show up at his home for checkups. People in his Contra Costa County neighborhood talk. He committed his crime 21 years ago, but he feels like he’s being penalized to this day.
“They say it’s not punishment, but in my eyes it is punishment,” Ross says.
The sex offender registry is designed to inform Ross’s neighbors of his presence, and his past, and to keep tabs on offenders who are considered dangerous to society.
But there are side-effects, and they can be dangerous, too. Alcoholics and drug addicts have trouble accessing treatment. Sex offenders face discrimination when it comes to finding work or housing.
The tragic inspiration behind Megan’s Law
California’s sex offender registry has been around for 70 years, but law enforcement agencies started publishing sex registries on a national scale in 1996.
This was after a spate of high profile child abduction cases changed the way parents watched over their kids.
People were shaken by the murders of children like 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York City, 6-year-old Adam Walsh in South Florida, 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey and 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma.
“The guy that murdered Polly was a recidivist, violent offender, and he had committed sex crimes against women over the course of his entire criminal history,” Marc Klaas, the father of Polly Klaas, says. “We were in a position where people didn't feel safe on their streets, and what happened to Polly made people feel unsafe even in their own homes, and there was a reaction to that.”
The importance of making information about sex offenders available to the public really hit home while Klaas was still searching for his kidnapped daughter.
Before Polly’s body was found, Klaas learned that, Bill Rhodes, the man who spearheaded the search to find her happened be a twice-convicted sex offender.
But Klaas had no way of knowing about his criminal past. Back then, information about sex offenders was not made public. It was almost impossible for anyone to know if neighbors or coaches, pastors or babysitters were convicted sex offenders.
“I asked police why they never told me that, and they said the only reason they were telling me now was that this information was going to break on the evening news in an hour, and their right to privacy superseded my right to know,” Klaas says.
A fight for transparency
With this incident in mind, Klaas eagerly joined the campaign to make information about sex offenders public. He campaigned for Megan’s Law, which did just that.
“We were fighting a fight that had never been fought before, and it was a fight to give people access to information that people could use to protect their families,” he said.
Sex offender registration reform
So when law enforcement groups like the California Police Chief’s Association and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys pushed for sex-registry reforms in the state legislature, Klaas was shocked.
It felt like the systems he helped build to protect children were unraveling, the pendulum swinging against his life’s work.
“All of a sudden, for people who were supposed to be punished one way or another for long periods of time, it’s all well and done,” Klaas says. “There are the victims left, slack-jawed, wondering, ‘Wow, they sure broke that promise to me, didn’t they?’”
The changes currently before the state legislature would allow many convicted sex offenders to petition to get off the registry after 10 or 20 years.
Some victim-advocacy groups, like the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, support these changes.
Betrayed by Megan’s Law
Before she bought a home in Sacramento, Mary Jean, like a lot of moms, looked up her new neighborhood online to check for sex offenders.
“I was always taught it’s the stranger lurking in the park, it’s stranger danger,” Jean says. “I was like, ‘Okay, there's nobody near there, okay, we're clear.’”
Megan’s Law made Jean feel safe. (That’s not her real name, by the way. We’re just using it to protect her and her daughter.) That sense of safety disappeared when her daughter told her that she had been sexually abused in her own home since she was eleven-years-old.
“I just sat there and I looked at her, ‘By who?’ And she sat there and she hesitated, and said, ‘By dad’” Jean says. “I hated him. I've never hated someone so much. I was seething with anger.”
Searching for incomplete data
Jean felt betrayed by her husband, but also by Megan’s Law.
She began to doubt that knowing about registered sex offenders can help parents avoid danger.
Most sex crimes are committed by someone the victim knows and trusts, the people who aren’t on the registry.
One of the ways she coped was trying to understand her husband’s crime and what could’ve prevented it.
Jean’s daughter pushed her to forgive her husband.
“I wish he had been able to talk to me, I wish there could have been a way to talk to a professional and asked them for help,” Jean says. “If stranger danger wasn’t true, and if the sex offender thing wasn’t true, what is true?”
Jean coped by delving into the research, looking for some hope for her family.
She talked a lot about studies and data and the kind of therapy her husband needs.
Sex offenders on the streets
According to the U.S. Justice Department, sex offenders have among the lowest recidivism rates of any offenders.
But Paul Kelly, president of the San Jose Police Officers Association, says sex crimes are often underreported.
“These types of individuals don’t change,” he says.
Nationwide statistics find that only 344 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police.
Kelly says people on the list are often grateful when police check-ins find child porn or evidence of wrongdoing.
“We’d get them on a case, and they’d say, ‘I'm glad you're arresting me, it's been getting worse, I can't help my thoughts, I had touched three other boys before this one,’” he says. “And we’re law enforcement. So that’s telling us, if this wasn’t happening, how many more victims would be victimized?”
Kelly says changes to the registry would put children in harm’s way.
“I didn't think California had so much empathy for pedophiles. As a parent, do what you have to do, raise my taxes, do anything, but do what you have to do to stop the peddling of child porn, and raping of children,” Kelly says.
Under the current bill, people convicted of felony child molestation or having child pornography would remain lifetime registrants.
People convicted of other misdemeanor sex crimes, like sexual battery, sexting with someone underage, voyeurism, or indecent exposure, could have a chance to get off the registry after 10 or 20 years.
Yet even providing some low-level offenders a shot off the registry doesn’t sit well with Kelly.
“So when we see the lower level crimes like that, the first thing we think in our head, because we have to, is what's next?” Kelly says.
The fight for sex offender civil rights
Members of a sex offender advocacy group called the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws met at the state capitol a couple of weeks ago to show that they are proof sex offenders can change.
The men mingling have all committed sex crimes in the past.
Their lobbying efforts have had some ups and downs this legislative session.
There was a bill that would’ve allowed about 90 percent sex offenders to petition to get off the registry. But it met an abrupt and bureaucratic end in the Assembly Appropriations committee a couple weeks ago.
Then, a watered-down version got stuffed into another bill and re-introduced by Senator Scott Weiner from San Francisco.
This latest bill, according to some estimates, could allow about 30 percent of the state’s sex offenders off the list.
“We have to be optimistic,” one of the men reminds the others. “Scarlett O’Hara. Tomorrow will be a better day.”
There is a strange sort of camaraderie between these middle-aged men who share the experience of violating society’s most basic moral code and living with the consequences.
Frank Lindsay, who was convicted of lewd acts with a child nearly 40 years ago, introduces me around.
“Jason just arrived,” he says. “He's got a powerful story because his daughter was kicked out of girl scouts because her dad is a registrant. Really. This is child abuse.”
Lindsay was once attacked outside his house by a vigilante who found his address on the sex offender registry.
"He immediately raised the hammer as he moved towards me, saying, ‘I'm going to f-ck you up, you pervert!’” Lindsay says. “There it was, someone to mete out justice."
Self-righteousness and redemption
In reporting this story, I talked to a lot of sex offenders.
Many are just trying to go about their lives. Some feel remorse, others don’t.
Mark Verba says he feels like a modern day pariah.
“I’m really sad, really sad about that,” Verba says. “Not so much for myself but for everyone else who continues to suffer needlessly.”
To be clear, he’s talking about the “needless suffering” of sex offenders, not victims.
He also emailed me a 104-page document entitled “My Story." It explained why the 12-year-old victim who testified against him was a liar, because he couldn’t remember exactly how many times he had been molested.
Then there are others, whose remorse is convincing.
Frank Lindsay no longer considers himself a sex offender; it’s what he did, he says, not who he is.
“I pray everyday for the young lady that I had crossed the line with, because this can be something that is carried for a very long time,” Lindsay says. “So I’ll carry on, doing my best to demonstrate that I too can heal, and be whole.”
Making the judgement call about sex offenders
Sex crimes are horrible. It’s hard not to be disgusted and scared when you think about what some of these men did.
If they live with lifelong stigma, imagine how the victims feel.
We can judge those on the registry, size up their stories, try to understand the severity of their original crime, and guess how sincere and repentant they are.
The bill asks the state government to judge them on our behalf — to decide what kind of criminals should eventually be allowed off the registry and when, and who needs to be monitored for life.
The bill passed in the State Assembly, and now awaits Governor Jerry Brown's approval. If Governor Brown signs off on the legislation, changes are expected to go into effect in 2021.