Fifty-four sex offenders live within two miles of the Santa Barbara Independent’s Figueroa Street offices. Their mugshots, height, weight, ethnicity, eye color, home addresses, criminal charges, and date they were released from jail are listed on the Megan’s Law website. That is about to change.
California lawmakers voted last year to reduce the length of time required for sex-offender registration. This means a sizeable number of Santa Barbara County registrants will no longer be tracked or publicly identified.
“It’s like putting a GPS on every shark in the ocean because one might attack a swimmer,” said Laura Arnold, a deputy public defender in Riverside and expert on sex offender registration laws. “Does it make the public safer? Probably not,” said Arnold, who was in Santa Barbara this week for a law seminar.
The new state law mandates sex offenders to be distinguished by the severity of their crime. Tier 1 crimes require 10-year registration for misdemeanants and felons who commit nonviolent crimes (or five years for minors). Tier 2 crimes require 20-year registration for serious or violent felons. Tier 3 crimes require lifetime registration for repeat offenders.
Before lawmakers passed Senate Bill 384, California was one of the only states that did not distinguish registered sex offenders by type of crime. The new law goes into effect in 2021. Debate among criminal justice experts persists about how useful a registry is in the first place.
The debate is no surprise. Arnold argued the state spends exorbitant resources every year monitoring sex offenders even though they only make up a tiny fraction of those who have committed a dangerous crime and are likely to reoffend. Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley, however, believes it helps detectives track down felons. While she supported the law to tier types of offenses, Dudley argued that getting rid of the registry altogether would be a threat to victims and public safety. She recalled one case where investigators used a photograph on the registry to track down a man who had committed three heinous rapes. “Otherwise, they would have started with every male in Santa Barbara County,” she said.
According to the Megan’s Law website, nearly 500 registered sex offenders live in Santa Barbara County. Across the county criminal justice system, no one was able to provide an estimate on the number who could petition the courts to remove their names from the registry. The California Department of Justice did not return inquiries about county-specific data by deadline.
Kim Shean, acting deputy probation chief, said there is a perception that sex offenders should be kept out of communities. “But they are already back in the community,” she said.
In Santa Barbara County, 168 sex offenders — all but one are men — are currently under supervision by the Probation Department. One probation officer supervises about 50 sex offenders at one time. Probation usually spans from 18 months to three years, Shean said. The probationers are subject to lie-detector tests and group therapy. Offenders might be prohibited from accessing the internet. In other cases, probation officers scour their personal computers for illicit photographs. In the past three years, Shean said, the department has seen a considerable uptick in child pornography cases, particularly in South County.
Child pornography has not become more popular. Rather, the DA’s Office has ramped up its investigations, Dudley said. She believes there exists a correlation between child pornography and molestation.
Adam Pearlman was a prosecutor in the 1990s and now is a criminal-defense attorney representing people convicted of all types of sex crimes. He said people charged with child pornography tend to be antisocial and secluded in their homes. “You could download child porn in a matter of 10 minutes,” he said.
Beginning in 2021, the sex offender registry will be more refined. But the question remains: Can serious sex offenders be rehabilitated? “It’s going to be a lifetime battle,” Shean said, likening it to other addictions.