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California moves to loosen sex offender residency restrictions after state Supreme Court rules

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SACRAMENTO, California — California will alter its 8-year-old ban preventing all registered sex offenders from living near schools or parks and instead impose the restriction only on pedophiles and others whose sex crimes involved children, state officials announced Thursday.

The state corrections department said it is changing its policy in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that the blanket prohibition is unconstitutional. The high court ruled this month that restrictions imposed by 70 percent of California voters in 2006 go too far to limit where sex offenders can live.

Parole agents can still force sex offenders to live more than 2,000 feet from schools and parks where children gather, as required by the ballot measure commonly known as Jessica's Law. But they will have to make the decision for individual cases.

The March 2 ruling applied only to registered sex-offender parolees in San Diego County, but prison officials will apply the ruling statewide. Some local governments outside San Diego County also have begun repealing their local residency restrictions in response to the high court's ruling.

It will take about 60 days for the department to review the files of about 6,000 sex offender parolees to decide if the restriction should still apply, department spokesman Luis Patino said. About half of the sex offenders are considered child molesters, he said.

"Some people who are not pedophiles ... will probably be removed from the restriction," Patino said. "It will be tailored to people who need it the most."

That will help the department by reducing the large number of sex offenders whose whereabouts must be monitored to determine if they are violating the residency law, he said. It also is expected to reduce the number of sex offenders who registered as transient because they could not find permanent housing that met the restrictions.

States across the U.S. have imposed a wide variety of residency restrictions on sex offenders, although many have faced legal challenges, and some Legislatures have rolled back their limits. The California Sex Offender Management Board said Iowa, Georgia and Oklahoma either rescinded or changed their residency restrictions, sometimes also tailoring restrictions to individual sex offenders.

The California ruling, and the change in policy, do not affect a different law that will continue to bar certain high-risk child molesters from living within a half-mile of any K-12 public or private school.

It does not change other parts of the law, including a requirement that sex offenders' whereabouts be monitored with tracking devices. Registered sex offenders also still must tell local law enforcement agencies where they live.

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who once headed the state parole board, said the department is broadly interpreting the court's decision and "putting the public at risk."

"I hope this is not an open door that the department can place child molesters or rapists across the street from a school," added Board of Equalization member George Runner, who co-authored Jessica's Law with his wife, Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, when both were in the Legislature.

Sharon Runner plans to reintroduce a bill she carried unsuccessfully in 2011 that would give local governments more flexibility in setting residency requirements.

Critics of the law, including law enforcement and treatment professionals on the state's Sex Offender Management Board, have repeatedly recommended that the state narrow what the board called a "one-size-fits-all" restriction. The board said in a report to the Legislature last month that limiting where sex offenders can live increased the number of transient offenders from about 1 percent to nearly 10 percent, to nearly 6,700 statewide, making them more difficult to supervise. Nearly 1,400 parolees have registered as homeless, the report said.

One of the San Diego County offenders who sued to overturn the law said he was forced to live in a dry riverbed after his parole agent told him he couldn't live near schools and parks. Two others said they slept in an alley near the parole office.

"Having an alarmingly large number of transient sex offenders in California does not make communities safer," the board said.

The high court echoed those criticisms, ruling that applying the residency restriction to every sex offender, no matter the age of their victim, bears "no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators."

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