Anaheim police officers keep residents at a community meeting from spilling into the street. The residents met on April 23 to discuss what to do about a group home (left) for convicted sex offenders in their neighborhood. Credit: Violeta Vaqueiro

Monday, April 26, 2010 |The blanket of blue dots north of the 55 freeway tells the story. Each dot on the California Attorney General’s online Megan’s Law map of Orange County represents the residence of a registered sex offender.

Roughly 1,200 of the county’s 1,900 registered sex offenders, or 63 percent, live north of the freeway, which runs east-to-west from Yorba Linda to Newport Beach, according to the website. And when cities are compared on an individual basis the disparity can be even greater.

Costa Mesa, for example, is home to 81 registered sex offenders while across the freeway, Newport Beach has only 13, according to the website.

There are some easy explanations for the disparity. More people in general live north of the 55 than south. And, by and large, it is cheaper to live in north county. But the patterns indicate that population and economics aren’t the only reasons.

Public policy decisions over the decades, like the building of parks and play grounds, also play a role. As do decisions made by parole officers who are responsible for finding homes for convicted offenders after they get out of prison.

Driving the situation are two state laws. Megan’s Law, adopted by California in 1996, allows the public to obtain information about convicted child molesters who might be living in their neighborhoods.

And Jessica’s Law, adopted in California in 2006, prohibits persons convicted of serious sexual offenses against children from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks where children congregate.

Jessica’s Law in particular could be influencing the north-south difference in Orange County. When development boomed in the 1950s and 1960s in northern Orange County, many cities failed to include neighborhood parks and wilderness areas and developers often lobbied against them so they could build on as much land as possible.

And for many, like Santa Ana, with 219 registered sex offenders, accordig to the website, it’s too late now to add parks. “The city’s built out,” said Ron Ono, Santa Ana Administrative Services Manager.

Contrast the built-out cities of the north with the master-planned communities of the south. Irvine, with acres and acres of bike trails, parks and greenbelts, has about 19 registered sex offenders, according to the Megan’s Law site.

Huntington Beach, which is about the same size as Irvine, according to the Megan’s Law site has about 114 registered sex offenders. City officials say they have no clear explanation as to why convicted sex offenders choose, or don’t choose, to live in their cities.

“I have no idea,” said Craig Reem, Irvine director of public affairs and communications when asked why his city’s numbers were so low.

He pointed out that parolees generally are returned to the county they came from, but beyond that they are free to live wherever they want, as long as it’s not too close to a school or park.

But why so many clustered in Huntington Beach, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and other north county cities?

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Gordon Hinkle thinks he might have an answer. And it’s one that’s being brought to the attention of the California Sex Offender Management Board, which is studying the best ways for the state to manage the entire issue.

“We don’t have an obligation to find housing for any parolee,” Hinkle said, but “what I think happens is a lot of parole agents help (parolees) find ‘compliant areas’ and those areas then are known as compliant locations” where it is legal for a parolee to live.

Other offenders come out of prison, are looking for places to live and move into the same neighborhoods because they’ve already been determined to meet the state’s residency rules.

The issue hits home particularly hard in Anaheim, the county’s second largest city. The city has 280 registered sex offenders on the Megan’s Law site. And city officials are now wrestling with what to do in a residential neighborhood where two group homes, which house a total of 11 serious sex offenders, recently began operating.

Frightened homeowners, including at least one woman in tears, went before the city council this month to plead for help. They said there are no nearby parks to prevent registered sex offenders from living in their neighborhood, but now, children no longer are allowed to play on the sidewalks because parents fear for their safety.

“We need help. We need a law. We need something to get these guys out of our neighborhood,” Natalie Barker told the council.

The Anaheim half-way houses were established by a Buena Park church, the Holy Ground Christian Fellowship, to help sex offenders the church believes have turned their lives around. Church officials argue it’s safer to house convicted sex offenders in group homes under supervision than have them living unsupervised on the streets.

The church officials’ argument is supported by recent statistics. Cities throughout the state are reporting rising numbers of homeless sex offenders, said Hinkle.

Council members told the parents there was nothing the city could do to remove the half-way houses as long as they complied with state laws, so the church and the homeowners are left to work out a solution on their own.

The reasoning behind both Megan’s and Jessica’s Laws is that the activities, and living arrangements, of convicted sex offenders need to be restricted even after they are off parole or probation.

Whether those restrictions actually work, is one of the issues raised in a January report from the California Sex Offender Management Board. Its recommendations include developing “public education efforts that dispel misunderstanding and promote information sharing.”

As for restricting where sex offenders may live, the report said “it seems clear that residence restrictions are driving up the numbers of homeless sex offenders … Research strategies should be developed to answer the challenging question of whether residence restrictions actually increase public safety.”

Jessica’s Law had a colossal impact on San Francisco according to an investigation earlier this year by television station KGO. The city has so many schools and parks that a map showing where sex offenders legally could live held only a few slices of real estate.

There are registered sex offenders living in San Francisco, but according to the investigation, since the law went into effect all 45 newly-paroled offenders have been required to live as homeless transients.

In Placentia, police chief James Anderson said those convicted of sexual offenses against children who actually live in the city, haven’t posed a problem. There are 29 listed on the Megan’s Law site and Anderson said officers visit homes to make sure they actually live there. “We just want to remind them we’re watching them,” he said.

But, he added, homeless convicted sex offenders who register with the city are required to check in with police every 30 days. Even if they do that, he said, it’s impossible to know where they are between check-in dates.

“They could be living in their car in Anaheim,” he said.

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