Ty Anis July 12, 2017

California has experienced a wave of criminal justice reforms. Many of these reforms have involved the classification of crimes as felonies or misdemeanors (Prop 47). Others have involved how individuals are sentenced or released (Prop 57). Efforts are underway to reform the California bail system and to decriminalize many offenses. But one recent reform is gaining momentum among both advocates for the rights of defendants as well as some members of law enforcement. A movement has started to reform the sex offender registry framework in California. Senate Bill 421 (SB 421) seeks to make drastic changes to the duration of some offenders’ requirements to stay on the sex registry. Before discussing the specifics of what reform may mean for the future, it is important to understand exactly how the sex offender registry currently works in California.

In California, the label of sex offender is a lifelong sentence for anyone convicted of certain offenses.  For example, an individual convicted of indecent exposure (PC 314) at the age of 18 is expected to continually register as a sex offender for the rest of their life. California is one of only four states in the nation that impose a lifelong commitment on all sex offenders (the others being Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina). The requirements are codified in California under Penal Code Section 290. Any sex offender id required to register with the police of their city or county where they live. The registration is required to be renewed on a yearly basis and at any point that the registrant moves to a new address. Certain conditions are imposed upon any offender in the registry. Whether an individual is the 18 year old described above or if they have multiple convictions for child molestation and rape, both are required to remain on the registry for life. The problems this presents have become apparent to both advocates for the sex offender registrants as well as law enforcement.

For the sex registrants, the impact of being on the 290 registry is difficult to overstate. Anyone can conduct a search for sex offenders in any city in California. This is understandable for parents who may want to know if there is a serial child molester in their neighborhood but it presents issues for someone who may have made one mistake decades before, perhaps even before they knew they would have to register as a sex offender in the future. They will forever have difficulty gaining employment, building relationships, and integrating themselves into society. One twist in the 290 registry is that it applies retroactively. This means that someone may be required to register as a sex offender even though that requirement did not exist at the time the person admitted the crime. 

The new movement to reform the sex offender registry recognizes that the current one size fits all classification of offenders makes little sense. Instead, reformers are focusing on placing California sex offenders into a tiered system that reflects the varying degree of seriousness to the offenses. 

The first tier would include individuals convicted of crimes such as misdemeanor indecent exposure , misdemeanor sexual battery, and felony possession of child pornography. Individuals on this first tier would be eligible for removal from the registry after a period of ten years. The second tier would allow for removal from the registry after twenty years and includes crimes such as rape, forcible sodomy, and lewd conduct with a child under 14. The final tier would still mandate lifetime registration for offenders with multiple convictions and for those deemed to be sexually violent predators.

The bill would create a method by which individuals eligible for relief could petition for removal from the registry after the prescribed time periods. Prosecutors would be responsible for reviewing the cases. Offenders who fall in the first two tiers would automatically be removed from the registry if their convictions are at least thirty years old.

Unsurprisingly, the bill has attracted the support of groups that advocate for the rights of defendants as well as civil liberties groups such as the ACLU. But the bill’s prospects for success are most significantly impacted by the support it has received from some members of law enforcement. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey has explained her support for modification of the sex offender registry by arguing that the current rules around the 290 registry have made it unwieldy and ineffective. Too many individuals are on the registry for law enforcement to actually maintain any credible level of supervision. A tiered system would allow law enforcement to focus its attention on the most serious offenders. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, and the California Police Chiefs Association have also expressed support for reform.

Opponents of the bill are united in expressing a distaste for any changes that appear to lower safety for the citizens of California. Some opponents are open to reform but are hesitant to place some of the crimes currently on the bill’s first two tiers outside of the lifetime registry requirement.

Senate Bill 421 represents the first realistic possibility of reform to California’s sex offender registry. Any changes will be closely monitored and could eventually end up on the state’s always crowded proposition ballot. If so, the voters will ultimately decide what side to fall on.