California’s ‘broken’ sex offender registry gets reformed in new bill

Some gay and bisexual men who are listed on the state’s sexual offender registry because they were targeted by law enforcement and discriminated against in undercover sting operations will be able to petition the state in 2021 to have their names removed under a law that will go into effect next year. Photo: iStock/powerofforever

Some gay and bisexual men who are listed on the state’s sexual offender registry because they were targeted by law enforcement and discriminated against in undercover vice stings will be able to petition the state in 2021 to have their names removed under a law that will go into effect next year.

REFORMING ‘BROKEN’ REGISTRY

That change is one of several in SB 384, which will reform California’s 70-year-old sex offender registry. The law takes effect January 1, but petitioners will have to wait three years before they can begin the removal process.

Until the bill was passed, California law required registration on the sex offender list for all sexual crimes, from rape to lewd conduct. For example, a gay man who was targeted by police in an undercover sting operation at a public park or bathroom and was convicted of indecent exposure, was treated the same as someone who sexually abused a child.

Registry reform had stalled for years in Sacramento because some public servants feared they would be seen as soft on crime. However, the bill was pushed by law enforcement agencies and Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who argued that California’s sex offender registry had become so bloated with more than 100,000 people that peace officers and the public can’t determine who is at high risk for re-offending.

ALSO READ: Judge says Long Beach police discriminate against gay men in undercover vice stings

UNFAIR TO GAY, BISEXUAL MEN

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who introduced the bill earlier this year, and supporters of the legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Equality California, have called the registry “broken” and said it’s unfair to gay and bisexual people who decades ago were arrested having consensual sex in public places. 

“With this reform, our law enforcement agencies will be able to better protect people from violent sex offenders rather than wasting resources tracking low-level offenders who pose little or no risk of repeat offense,” Weiner said in a statement soon after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill in October.

WAITING PERIOD

SB 384 will allow many sex offenders to petition the state for removal from the public and law enforcement registries 10 after their prison term is finished, as long as they have not committed another serious or violent felony or sex crime.

If someone agreed to a indecent exposure count as part of a plea to avoid prison, their waiting period to petition the state starts from their sentencing date. For some people entrapped by police decades ago, they might be able to petition in 2021.

“Thousands of LGBTQ people still find themselves on California’s sex offender registry for behavior that harmed no one, was motivated by discriminatory police enforcement practices and that would not be prosecuted today,” Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, said in a statement. “Gov. Brown’s signature will restore livelihoods and help restore the registry as a tool for investigating those who pose a real danger to society.”

ALSO READ: Long Beach police sued for discrimination against gay man in undercover vice sting

THREE-TIERED SYSTEM

The bill creates a three-tiered system instead of one that treats all sexual offenses equally.

  • Tier one lets people convicted of crimes like misdemeanor sexual battery, misdemeanor possession of child pornography, and indecent exposure to petition for removal from the registry after 10 years. Tier one has the largest number of sex offenders, potentially 65,000 people are in this category.

         Those offenders would come off the registry after waiting the mandatory minimum of 10                  years after their release from prison.

  • Tier two includes people convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor, oral copulation with a minor under 14 years old, and non-forced sodomy with a minor under 14 years old. Their mandatory minimum waiting period is 20 years. This section has about 24,000 people.
  • Tier three has people convicted of rape, sex crimes against children 10 and younger, repeated sex crimes, and sex trafficking minors. They must be registered for life. About 8,200 people are included in this section.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.