Friday, October 06, 2006

17 sex offenders in 1 spot offers object lesson

Not the first jurisdiction to figure out that if you exclude them them from other locales, you end up with concentrations of sex offenders too toxic to tolerate. Geez, doesn't anybody peruse the Internet anymore?

Six miles north of Santa Cruz, in the rural enclave of Happy Valley, the residents are anything but happy these days. Their rage has everything to do with 17 tenants on an old estate that the actress Elizabeth Montgomery once bought for her parents.

And no, this story has nothing to do with entertainment or family pride. Montgomery's parents moved on long ago. In the sad remains of grandeur, the tenants in question are all sex offenders, the majority of them child molesters.

When the Happy Valley residents found out about the concentration from the Megan's Law Web site (www.meganslaw.ca.gov), they descended on the Santa Cruz County supervisors Tuesday with the fury of folks who had just learned that the bacteria of the black plague was dumped into their drinking water.

They had a litany of complaints: They said that sewage effluent still comes from the Happy Valley Villa and that the home doesn't meet building or health codes. By far the biggest lament, however, was that the state located that many sex offenders in their midst without alerting them.

``We have to protect ourselves,'' one Happy Valley resident, Alan Grattan, told the board. ``We can't wait for something bad to happen.''

Jessica's Law

The tale teaches lessons about the unintended consequences of Jessica's Law, the state ballot proposal that will make it all but impossible to house sex offenders in many urban areas.

But perhaps I get ahead of the story. It really begins with the property, a sprawling piece of land at 4573 Branciforte Drive in the hollows of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Once an old mansion lined with classical statues and shielded by a wrought-iron gate, the property became a psychiatric hospital and then a group home that now houses 25 to 30 tenants. The suburban-style chalet attached to the main house has the run-down feel of a tired motel.

Although I left a note on the door of the current owner, Arlen Hafner, he didn't respond. The neighbors say Hafner sees nothing wrong with renting to sex offenders. They report that he's even offered to introduce them at a parents' picnic for Happy Valley School, 1.3 miles away.

That raises the question: Just what were state parole authorities thinking when they put that many sex offenders in one spot?

``I understand how the neighbors may feel,'' said Carolyn Graham, the assistant regional administrator of the parole office that covers Santa Cruz County. ``But with the knowledge and surveillance and attention we're giving the parolees at this location, we believe we have all the issues considered. By law, they're allowed to reside in that area.''

You can argue -- and some do -- that lumping that many offenders together offers convenience to law enforcement. Authorities can keep a better tab on offenders in one place rather than in 17.

Difficult to locate

What's more, it's difficult to find places for these guys to live. While it's rural, the Happy Valley Villa is close enough to provide access to drug and alcohol rehabilitation, counseling, parole, etc. And yes, I know most sex offenders commit their offenses on people they know well.

What is legal, however, isn't always politically wise. How would you feel if 17 sex offenders were located within a couple of blocks of your home? However safe authorities believe the situation is, you can't blame the neighbors for fighting it. ``We're just not going to let this go,'' said Laura Grattan, a mother of two who lives next door.

That's one reason I'm opposing Jessica's Law in November. If Proposition 83 passes, you can count on more pitched battles like this in rural areas. Given that the proposal's provisions about locating offenders near parks or schools would assure that urban areas like San Jose won't have many places to house them, that's a recipe for trouble.

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