Calif. tries to house sex offenders

Tough law makes it harder for law enforcement to monitor repeaters

September 09, 2007|By Catherine Saillant | Catherine Saillant,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Habitual sex offender Ross Wollschlager has bounced from one Ventura County, Calif., hotel to another in the weeks since his release from a state mental hospital, getting ejected each time the owner learned of his identity.

Publicity about his release has made it impossible for the 44-year-old convicted rapist to find a rural landlord willing to give him a place to live.

After seven evictions, Liberty Healthcare Corp., a San Diego company hired by the state of California to help Wollschlager get resettled, gave him a tent and he began living in the Ventura River bottom. He is overseen by a taxpayer-funded security guard who stays in a vehicle nearby.

Wollschlager's predicament has reignited debate on whether strict new laws governing sex offenders are making it more difficult to monitor them.

The state's Jessica's Law, passed overwhelmingly by voters last fall, bars Wollschlager from living within 2,000 feet - about a half-mile - of any school, park or beach. He wears two monitoring devices on his ankle and shuttles between his campsite and a friend's home each day.

"It's harder to protect the public when he is homeless," said Margaret Coyle, a county prosecutor who opposed Wollschlager's release. "Were he in a condo or an apartment, we could supervise him more effectively."

But Will Smith, chief of staff for state Sen. George Runner, who sponsored Jessica's Law, said he believes it is effective in protecting residents.

"We've never made any argument that it wouldn't be harder to find housing, but we've always argued that it would be safer," Smith said. "We think the safety of residents in California outweighs any inconvenience on [Wollschlager's] part."

Liberty Healthcare is continuing to look for permanent placement for Wollschlager, a search that began 17 months ago, said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health.

It's not the first time a sex offender has become homeless upon release, Kincaid said.

Last summer, before Jessica's Law was approved, child molester Timothy Boggs was "chased from hotel to hotel" in Sacramento until a bail bondsman stepped forward to offer him a place to stay in his office, she said.

In San Luis Obispo County, felon Frederick Hoffman is scheduled to live in a trailer near military training grounds upon his release.

On Friday, the state Department of Corrections announced that it had notified 2,741 sex offenders, who were paroled after Nov. 8, 2006, that they were in violation of housing restrictions mandated by Jessica's Law. The parolees now have less than 45 days to comply with the law.

The problem is only going to get bigger, Kincaid said.

More than 650 convicts are being treated as repeat sex offenders, and at least 11 could be released within a year. Meanwhile, Jessica's Law expanded the definition of who should be treated for sex offenses, and referrals to the state-run sexually violent predator treatment program have grown from 50 a month to more than 700, Kincaid said.

"How on earth do we do what the voters asked for - that is, how do we track these people? I really don't know," she said.

A 146-page report titled "No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the United States," scheduled for release next week by the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, is expected to be critical of such laws and policies and urge state and federal reforms, including the elimination of residency restrictions.

Sheriff Bob Brooks said Jessica's Law should be modified to make it workable.

"The 2,000-foot distance makes it so hard to find housing," the sheriff said.

Todd Howeth, Wollschlager's county-provided lawyer, said his client is committed to turning his life around. He wears a global positioning anklet, attends counseling sessions almost daily and consults with layers of security and bureaucrats before making a move.

The public defender's office recently filed a petition challenging the restrictions, arguing that Jessica's Law went into effect months after Wollschlager was ordered released. Howeth said his client has received death threats and is being treated like a leper.

"Government should provide some kind of facility for these men to transition into," he said. "Wollschlager has paid his price to society, and if you have this system, they should have housing to go to."

Catherine Saillant writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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