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How Los Angeles parks built to drive away sex offenders could backfire

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 1st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The City of Los Angeles is building at least three "pocket parks" to force convicted sex offenders out of their homes. City officials say sex offenders have aggregated in small pockets within the community and concerned citizens want the groups dispersed. Their efforts may bring to the fore discussion on how offenders are treated, and could ultimately prove counter-productive.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - It will be the smallest park in Los Angeles at just one-fifth an acre in size. Yet, it will be enough to compel as many as 86 sex offenders living in a pocket of the city in Torrance near the Harbor Gateway, to find another place to live.

The pocket park is part of a program that is designed to add green, open spaces and public amenities to several Los Angeles communities, but some are also being built for another value-added purpose.

Under state law, sex offenders are not allowed to live within 2,000 feet of a school or a park. This places all but a few slivers of residences off limits for offenders, forcing many to leave cities and relocate to rural or industrial areas.

Still, there remain a few residential pockets where offenders can legally live and by constructing a park, those pockets will now be closed by the "pocket parks."

City Councilman Joe Buscaino said, "I want to do everything in my power to keep child sex offenders away from children. We have to look at some solutions and in comes the pocket park idea."

While such measures may be popular with the community, they may actually have an adverse effect on both public safety and laws which are intended to protect children.

Despite popular opinion, sex offenders reoffend in the smallest numbers according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).  The CDCR reports that only 2 percent of sex offenders recidivate according to data from 2008. That's much lower than any type of other criminal offender in the state. This does not suggest that prison cures the problem, but more likely once a family and the community knows that an individual is dangerous, they tend to take protective measures. Also, most child sex offenses do not involve strangers, but rather family members, so knowing who they are is much more key to public safety than where they are.

Janice Bellucci, president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws told the L.A. Times, "People are running around with hysteria when they don't know the facts. I understand that sex offenders are not a popular part of society, but they have constitutional rights."

This is where the efforts to build the parks may land public officials in a tight spot. There is a growing consensus in both academic and law enforcement circles that current laws, which have a banishing effect on sex offenders, tend to make recidivism more likely and communities less safe. This is because offenders are separated from stable housing and other social support structures that are vital to rehabilitation.

These measures also provide fodder for activist lawyers to attack current laws as unjust and unconstitutional. Ultimately, if a judge can be found that sympathizes with the plight of the sex offenders then the laws which are intended to protect the community could be struck down for overreaching.

Similar challenges have been won by sex offenders in other states with regards to residency restrictions, the right to visit parks and other public places, and even the right to participate in online social networks such as Facebook. A recent California ballot initiative requiring sex offenders to register their online identities has already been suspended by a judge and will likely be overturned.

This then, makes efforts such as the pocket park in Los Angeles counter-productive. While the sex offenders may eventually leave the neighborhoods where the parks are built, they will locate elsewhere.

For now, the parks are being constructed and will provide children with a place to play and adults a spot to relax. They will also beautify the community. However, they may also provide ammunition to sex offenders and their advocates who wish to weaken existing laws, which currently place a myriad of highly debatable restrictions on them.

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