A California lawmaker arranged an improper deal with state corrections officials to stop an influx of parolees into his district 10 months before voters approved “Jessica’s Law,” the 2006 ballot measure he wrote to restrict where paroled sex offenders could live.
In what state Sen. George Runner characterized as a “side agreement” with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the prison and parole agency said it would limit assignments of released offenders into the Antelope Valley to those who had “historical ties” to the area.
The agreement created an added layer of anti-parolee protection for the fast-growing desert valley communities on the northern fringe of Los Angeles County.
State law mandates only that parolees be returned to the county of their last legal residence. In vast Los Angeles County, for instance, an inmate from South Central Los Angeles could be paroled to Lancaster.
CDCR officials, saying that the deal violated the law, terminated the agreement this spring.
“When we took a look at it, we said we can’t treat offenders in this county any different than offenders in any other county,” said Terri McDonald, the CDCR’s chief deputy secretary for adult operations.
“Jessica’s Law,” which bars sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks, has turned the vast majority of the state’s big-city urban landscapes into no-go zones for the measure’s targeted population. One result of the initiative has been a huge increase in the number of sex offender parolees who say they are now homeless, spurring a key state oversight agency to call for a “rethinking” of the measure’s housing restrictions.
Lawmaker: Valley hit hard
Runner, R-Lancaster, said his January 2006 deal had nothing to do with the possibility of sex offenders flooding into his home turf as a result of the ballot measure approved by 70 percent of California voters in November 2006. The wider open spaces and lower-cost housing in the Antelope Valley, which he represents, made it a potential relocation center for sex offenders looking to escape tightly packed urban locales for legal places to live.
Instead, Runner said, he only wanted changes in the parole division’s operating procedures. He said the Antelope Valley was being disproportionately affected by run-of-the-mill parolees who moved there when they got out of prison. He said the side agreement had nothing to do with sex offenders per se.
“From the very beginning, there was not a connection between the issue of ‘Jessica’s Law’ and this particular issue of parolees in the Antelope Valley,” Runner said in an interview.
He said that the location of a major, maximum-security prison in the Antelope Valley combined with the area’s relatively cheap housing made it “easier to dump (parolees) in Lancaster.”
Rather than getting special treatment from the state, Runner said he requested only “normal treatment” for the communities he represents.
“I don’t think anybody should have disproportional numbers in their communities,” Runner said. “I think my job as a legislator is to make sure my constituents are being treated fairly by the state of California.”
In Lancaster, 0.9 percent of the population is made up of parolees. That is three times the 0.3 percent rate for all of Los Angeles County, according to corrections department statistics. The other, larger city in the valley, Palmdale, has a rate of 0.57 percent, nearly double the county’s figure.
Since 2006, the parolee population in the Antelope Valley has climbed 17 percent, to a current total of 2,306, according to corrections figures.
But the number of paroled sex offenders in the area has not risen nearly so dramatically. There are only six more paroled sex offenders living in the Antelope Valley now than there were three years ago. The increase from 144 to 150 represents an expansion of 4.2 percent, corrections department figures show.
‘Classic case of NIMBYism’
State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, opposed “Jessica’s Law” because he thought it would result in sex offenders moving from cities to rural areas such as the district he represents in Kern and Tulare counties.
Florez said the timing of Runner’s side agreement with the CDCR makes it look like the Republican senator and his wife, former Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, “were having a conversation with parole to limit parolees in their area in anticipation of the consequences of ‘Jessica’s Law’ going on the ballot and perhaps passing.”
“I think this was important information that the public should have known, that even the authors of ‘Jessica’s Law’ were trying to go beyond the basic framework of the law to carve out, or ‘manage’ how many parolees lived in their community,” Florez said in an e-mail. “I think … it could have been part of the public discussion on the impacts of the initiative, if in fact the Runners were involved in the proposed policy change with respect to Antelope Valley.”
James Lindburg is a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on Legislation of California, which has long advocated for prison and parole reform and has opposed many of the tough sentencing laws that voters and lawmakers have approved over the past two decades. Lindburg characterized Runner’s agreement as evidence of a lawmaker renowned for his stringent law-and-order legislation “telling the Department of Corrections that he doesn’t want his local jurisdiction to bear the consequences of that.”
“If Runner doesn’t want them in his district, then where do they go?” Lindburg said. “It seems to me that this is a classic case of NIMBYism.”
Agreement ‘limited’ housing
Corrections officials formalized the agreement with Runner in the two-page, Jan. 31, 2006, document called “Preventative Strategies to Minimize the Parole Population Impact to the Antelope Valley.”
The paper said the corrections department would make its parolee re-entry “screener” in Los Angeles County “responsible for ensuring that any case being released or considered for assignment to the Antelope Valley have historical ties to the community.”
CDCR official McDonald said the prison and parole agency pulled the agreement back this year because “it isn’t in compliance with the law.”
McDonald said the Runner agreement “really impacted a parolee’s ability to live in a particular area” and “really limited our ability to house parolees, and we can’t do that statewide or in any region, so that’s why we had to pull it back.”
Still, corrections officials dismissed the suggestion that the agreement provided Runner’s district with special treatment. Joyce Hayhoe, the corrections agency’s assistant secretary in charge of legislation, who attended meetings with Runner that preceded the January 2006 agreement, said the potentially negative consequences of “Jessica’s Law” never entered into their talks with the senator.
“There wasn’t even a conversation about sex offenders,” Hayhoe said. “I don’t think he ever mentioned sex offenders.”
The agreement, however, does contain one provision concerning high-risk sex offenders. It said that “specialized agents” would be assigned to the parole office in Lancaster, in the Antelope Valley, to “concentrate their activities” on high-risk parolees and “supervise our High Risk Sex Offender (HRSO) population” with satellite tracking devices. Runner said he did not ask for the specialized agents, that corrections officials put that provision in on their own.
‘Transient’ offenders on rise
The Runner-CDCR agreement came into being about two weeks after the senator failed to persuade the Legislature to pass a version of “Jessica’s Law.” At the same time, Runner had nearly completed a signature-gathering campaign to get the measure on the statewide ballot.
Since the law went into effect, more than 1,000 paroled sex offenders have registered their housing status as “transient,” according to the state’s Sex Offender Management Board. Only 88 of them were classified as such before “Jessica’s Law” passed.
The so-called homeless sex offender parolees are required to wear satellite tracking devices, check in with their parole agents every day by phone and personally visit with the agents every week. They’re also supposed to register with their local police departments every month.
The Sex Offender Management Board, created by an Assembly bill in 2006 that was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, concluded in a report last November that homeless sex offenders pose a significant public safety threat.
“Lack of stability is a primary contributing factor to an increased risk of reoffending, including sexual reoffending,” the report said. “Residential instability leads to unstable employment and lower levels of social support. Unstable employment and lack of social support lead to emotional and mental instability. Emotional and mental instability breaks down the ability to conform and leads to a greater risk of committing another sex crime.”
The board in January recommended the “rethinking” on the housing restrictions, but Runner said the current arrangement is better than it was before November 2006.
“We’d much rather have them without an address and monitored than living across the street from a school,” Runner said.