Seeking smarter rules for sex offenders

Janice Bellucci of Reform Sex Offender Laws believes offenders should go to prison. But after they get out, she wants them to have a chance to lead stable lives.

April 11, 2013

By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times

Janice Bellucci is a mother of two, the wife of a pastor and a former Girl Scout leader active in volunteer work.

She lives in a gated community an hour's drive north of Santa Barbara, with needlepoint pillows on the sofa and a vegetable garden in the backyard. She is also the public face of an organization advocating for the closest thing to an untouchable caste in our society: California's 88,000 registered sex offenders.

A former aerospace lawyer, Bellucci is the president of the California chapter of Reform Sex Offender Laws, a national group of offenders, family members, psychologists and attorneys registered as a nonprofit.

The California branch holds meetings every other month, closed to the media, to discuss offenders' rights and legal actions she is taking. Bellucci believes sex offenders should go to prison for their crimes. Her target is the crazy quilt of state and local laws regulating their conduct after they get out.

These laws bar offenders from moving near parks and schools, leaving them with comparatively few places to live. Almost all of San Francisco, and most of San Diego, is off-limits, she says. Some ordinances forbid offenders to even visit county parks and beaches.

Bellucci also wants to give some sex offenders a way off the registry. California is one of four states where sex offenders register for life, regardless of the seriousness of their crimes.

Bellucci has brought a professional sheen to the sex offenders' fight, writing talking-point memos, testifying before agencies and taking cities to court. And she's had some success: After she sued, a court stopped Simi Valley from requiring sex offenders to post signs on their front doors warning trick-or-treaters away on Halloween.

She casts her cause as a civil rights movement. During a conversation at her home, Bellucci referred to those on the list as "registrants" rather than sex offenders, and she quoted Gandhi and the Constitution.

"People don't like to hear me say it, but it's like how the Jews were treated in Nazi Germany," she said. "First they were told they were different, then they ended up in concentration camps."

No doubt this preposterous characterization is objectionable. Sex offenders are shunned for their conduct, not their status. And their conduct is often unspeakable.

But even a state advisory board acknowledges that post-release restrictions on sex offenders have gone too far. In an August 2011 report, the California Sex Offender Management Board said that one-third of the state's registered sex offenders are homeless, partly because of the housing limits.

There is no evidence that residence limits make children safer, the report said. "To the contrary, the evidence strongly suggests that residence restrictions are likely to have the unintended effect of increasing the likelihood of sexual re-offense," the report went on.

A particularly boneheaded example of overkill is the pocket park in Harbor Gateway. The park is being built not to serve families but to drive registered sex offenders out of a nearby apartment building, my colleague Angel Jennings reported.

I have no doubt Harbor Gateway needs a park. But what kind of a society builds parks not for children, but to chase sex offenders away?

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza put the issue on hold in March by ordering officials to stop enforcing restrictions on how close sex offenders can live to parks or schools. Bellucci argues the limits are unconstitutional, and Espinoza, in an earlier ruling, agreed.

Bellucci, 61, doesn't have a sex offender in the family, although she currently represents some in civil challenges. She came to the cause by chance. The man who installed her water purifier wrote a book about his years on the registry. She read it and was aghast.

The man, Franklin Lindsay, had molested a child more than 30 years earlier, when he was a raging alcoholic, Bellucci said. Lindsay went on to build a business and become a civic activist. He was physically attacked by a vigilante who found his name and address on the registry, she said.

His case helped convince her that lifetime registration was wrong. Bellucci has stories about Everymen who wind up on the registry: the "Romeo and Juliet" cases of two teens, one underage, in a sexual relationship; the guy who urinates behind a bar or moons a crowd. Nobody seems to know how many fit this category.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has proposed a three-tiered registry that would enable lower-level offenders with otherwise clean records to get off in 10 to 20 years. Bellucci is lobbying for its passage.

"Sex offenders come from all walks of life," she said. "Some grew up in the ghetto, some grew up in Beverly Hills. They're like everybody else."

Really? I don't think so. Some undoubtedly made mistakes, but others are hardened offenders whom law enforcement would do well to track and monitor.