CALIFORNIA, USA — In 1947, California was the first state to create a sex offender registry. Until July 2021, anyone convicted of being a sex offender in the state had to register for life with no exceptions. Now, for the first time, offenders can petition to be removed from the list.
Tami Martin is the legislative director of Equality California, a LGBTQ civil rights organization that helped sponsor the legislation altering the sex offender registry.
“The registry, I’m sure you know, has catastrophic consequences for people who are on it. It affects where you’re allowed to live, it affects whether you’re able to get a job, (and) it increases the likelihood you’ll experience homelessness,” Martin said.
She said there is context many people forget.
“One thing that’s important for people to know is that California’s registry was created in the 1940s. So, it was constructed around all of the stigma and the discriminatory laws that existed at that time, including laws that criminalized same sex conduct. Right now, you have people who are in their 70s and 80s who have been on the registry since the 50s or 60s for example - just because of discriminatory laws that are no longer around. So, those people will now be able to petition to come off of the registry and get their lives back on track,” Martin said.
Prior to 2021, California was one of just four states with a lifetime sex offender registry. The others were South Carolina, Alabama and Florida.
Now, the registry is divided into three tiers. Tier one is for low level offenders, tier two is for mid-level offenders, and tier 3 is for violent offenders, repeat offenders, and those deemed likely reoffend.
SB 384 is the legislation responsible for the tier system. It was passed in 2017 and signed into law by former governor Jerry Brown. It was co-authored by State Senator Scott Wiener who explained why change was necessary.
“It made the sex offender registry so massive, like 120,000 people in California, that law enforcement couldn’t even use it for its intended purpose, which is to monitor dangerous people,” Wiener said.
He said the bill was lauded by many disparate groups.
“We had a lot of support in passing this law, including from law enforcement, because law enforcement doesn’t want low level offenders clogging up the sex offender registry. They want to focus on the real bad actors, so we had a lot of support. But any time you’re talking about sex offenders, there’s going to be controversy because people jump to conclusions,” Wiener said.
ABC10 asked Senator Wiener about the belief that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated.
“Anyone can be rehabilitated with very few exceptions, and the real sex predators are not coming off the registry. They will be on for life,” he said.
Wiener said the legislation means positive change for Californians.
“It means we will be more in line with the rest of the country, where we keep the real bad people on. But for low level offenders, we give them a pathway off,” he said.
It's possible that very few people know as much about the legislation or its roots than Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, Bradley McCartt, who helped write SB 384 after hearing about the need, perhaps most vocally from law enforcement.
“The Los Angeles Police Department did a study and found that 60% of their sex offender and tracking resources were being spent registering, at their annual registration, doing paperwork for no risk and low risk offenders,” McCartt said.
He said Governor Schwarzenegger's administration created the California Sex Offender Management Board to study the issue. He explained that the science doesn’t support peoples’ fears.
“The period for recidivism is, after 10 years, there is a significant decrease in the chance of recidivating at all. At 17 years, it becomes a flat line of them recidivating,” McCartt said.
This is how the new system works: people in tier one can petition (beginning in July 2021) to be removed from the list after 10 years in the community with no additional offenses. People in tier two can petition to be removed after 20 years in the community with no additional offenses. People in tier three still remain on the sex offender registry for life.
McCartt said people’s lives are already beginning to change.
“I spoke with one of our major law enforcement agencies last week who told me about their first petition that they’d received and evaluated and it was for an individual who committed a misdemeanor 30 years ago, who has never committed another crime," he said. "It was a low level misdemeanor that required registration, and they have done that analysis and submitted to the district attorney’s office.”
People do not automatically come off the list after 10 or 20 years. That’s just when they’re allowed to petition the courts to be removed. The courts will make the final call.
Stephen Munkelt is the Executive Director with the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an organization for criminal defense lawyers, which provides education for members in criminal law subjects and advocates for criminal justice reform. He knows the new law well.
“Realistically, nothing has changed yet. The system just began its implementation on July 1. Attorneys are being asked, ‘How do I do this?’ And attorneys are figuring out the system. There’s new paperwork from the judicial council to help petition the courts and so on,” Munkelt said.
He said the law also makes sense when you look at the bottom line.
“It’s also extremely expensive for the state and the counties. There’s over 104,000 sex offender registrants in the state and it’s tens of millions of dollars every year to register them, supervise them and, for those who might have some violation, to try to enforce the rules,” Munkelt said.
“Many, many people who are on the registration list, and currently on there for a lifetime, have very minor offenses. They’re a one-time affair. They learned their lesson probably before they even went to court that this wasn’t a good thing for me to do, and so there’s no reason for us to effectively punish them by this public declaration that they’re unsafe to be around,” he added.
SB 384 also modified Meghan’s Law, the legislation requiring sex offender information to be posted online on the Meghan’s Law website. It did two things: 1: it removed the numerous exceptions allowing people to NOT be on the Meghan’s Law website and 2. When someone is removed from the sex offender registry, they will now also be removed from the website.