The Sex Offender Next Door
Leashing them in.


I wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece last year that began:

Did you know that in California, child molesters and rapists are a protected class? It’s true. Not only are California landlords banned from using the state’s Megan’s Law database to decline renting their properties to sex offenders, they’re not even allowed to warn other tenants that these paroled criminals are now their neighbors. If they do the first, they can be fined $25,000 for housing discrimination. But if they don’t do the second, they can be sued for failing to protect tenants against a known danger.

Landlords are caught between a rock, a hard place and the California State Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, which last April stalled a bill designed to fix the Catch-22…

Unfortunately, that situation hasn’t changed, because neither Prop. 83 — which toughens sex-offender restrictions and is expected to easily pass in the November election — nor the package of bills Arnold Schwarzenegger signed last week specifically addresses the strange Catch-22 facing owners of California rental properties. But supporters say these new laws will change California from one of the most lenient states when it comes to sex offenders to the harshest.

And that, at least, is very good news. (Unless you’re a sex offender, of course.)

The Nov. 7 ballot initiative (dubbed Jessica’s Law, after a nine-year-old Florida girl raped and killed last year by a convicted sex offender) prohibits released sex felons from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks, and also mandates all registered sex offenders be electronically tracked for life. The bills Gov. Schwarzenegger signed have similar restrictions, while also increasing penalties for child rape, possession of child pornography, and Internet luring.

But the Megan’s Law housing situation is so absurd I’m sometimes amazed that it even still stands. “It seems like a pretty clear First Amendment violation,” UCLA law professor and First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh told me when I asked for his opinion last year, “especially given Florida Star v. B.J.F. If it’s unconstitutional to bar speakers from revealing the names of rape victims when those names were accidentally released by government officials into the public record, I’d think that it would be unconstitutional to bar speakers from revealing the names of rapists when those names were deliberately placed by government officials into the public record.”

“But it seems that California weighs the privacy of public-record information about sex criminals more heavily than its law-abiding citizens’ constitutionally protected free speech,” added Eugene, who’s also a fellow blogger and friend.

At least I had the pleasure of hearing KFI’s drive-time talk-radio stars John and Ken spin one of their famous rants around my Wall Street Journal piece last year.

“And… and… and…it’s the landlord that’s in trouble! Not the sex offender!” they yelled when I tuned in. “The sex offender, nothing bad can happen!”

I’d explained in my piece that a reform measure meant to correct the Megan’s Law housing glitch died last year because assembly members Mervyn Dymally (D., Compton), Jackie Goldberg (D., L.A.) and committee Mark Leno (D., San Francisco) all voted no. For representatives serving on a public-safety committee, these three seem oddly unconcerned with public safety. Goldberg and Leno in particular seem to have a tradition of positioning themselves against anyone trying to promote an orderly civic environment in this state.

“Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez is the godfather of the PERVERT CAUCUS!” yelled John (or maybe it was Ken.) “This trio of evil — Dymally, Goldberg and Leno — Fabian Nunez can’t help it if these guys get elected, but you certainly don’t put them on a public safety committee! What’s wrong with him? What kind of creep is he?”

Thank you, John and Ken, for the outrage — because it’s so relaxing, when someone expresses all this for you in a high-decibel tone you’d never use yourself. Unlike talk-radio hosts, I am always easygoing and serene, and so can only experience this sort of satisfaction vicariously.

Anyway, Mark Leno last year was best known as the author of California’s vetoed gay-marriage bill, but he still found time that summer to criticize Gov. Schwarzenegger’s efforts to toughen sex offender laws. For one thing, he worried that since San Francisco is such a geographically small city, keeping released predators a mile-and-a-half away from schools would force them out of the area.

You might think that stratospheric San Francisco rents would also discourage anyone just released from prison. But I guess we should be thankful that, so far at least, Leno hasn’t backed an affordable-housing-for-paroled rapists measure.

He did once call a San Francisco police sting against Internet sex predators “mean-spirited” and “a waste of tax-payers’ money,” which I guess brings up the question of what he’d consider a good use of taxpayers’ money? Well, besides gay marriage, Leno’s projects have included hosting self-esteem conferences for young men, making sure the transgendered aren’t denied medical insurance, and fighting anti-porn filters in public libraries.

Leno did have some reasonable complaints about the California version of Megan’s Law when we talked last year. He told me, for instance, that California is the only state that has no drop-off period — meaning that even someone guilty of only one, low-risk offence decades ago (Leno mentioned a 55-year-old man who, at 17, had inappropriately touched a 13-year-old cousin) is still on the registry.

Still, you’d think these snafus could be addressed without insisting on keeping paroled sex offenders a protected class landlords can’t discriminate against. And preventing property owners from at least warning tenants about them is just ridiculous.

Then there’s Jackie Goldberg, who as it happens used to live a few doors up the street from me in the 1990s, when she was still an L.A. City Council member. I always found her an amiable neighbor, although never an especially safety-minded one. When he got his license, her teenaged son began a frightening habit of racing his car up our cul-de-sac — pausing only to yell out his car window at a dog that used to bark at him when he was a pedestrian trudging home from the bus stop.

“You can talk to him yourself, you know,” Jackie suggested, when I asked her to please tell the boy to slow down and drive more carefully. To her credit, she did back down when I pointed out it was rather hard to have such a conversation with someone zipping past at over 40-miles-per-hour. Other neighbors were angry when Jackie’s own unleashed large dog killed their pet rabbit, and also attacked another neighbor’s small dog.

I love dogs, but don’t think they should be allowed to run loose. Sex offenders should be kept on an even tighter leash.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.