Build a park, banish sex offenders

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LOS ANGELES -- Parents who pick up their children at the bus stop in this city's Harbor Gateway neighborhood say they often see men wearing GPS ankle bracelets and tell their children to stay away. Just up the street, 30 paroled sex offenders live in a single apartment building, including rapists and child molesters. More than 100 registered sex offenders live within a few miles.

So local residents and city official developed a plan to force convicted sex offenders to leave their neighborhood: open a tiny park.

Parents in Los Angeles, where state law prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a public park, are not the only ones seizing on this approach. From the metropolis of Miami to the small town of Sapulpa, Okla., communities are building pocket parks, sometimes so small that they have barely enough room for a swing set, to drive out sex offenders. One playground installation company in Houston has even advertised its services to homeowners associations as an option for keeping sex offenders away.

Within the next several months, one of Los Angeles' smallest parks will open in Harbor Gateway, on a patch of grass less than 1,000 square feet at a corner of a busy intersection. But even if no child ever uses its jungle gym, the park will serve its intended purpose.

"Regardless of whether it's the largest park or the smallest, we're putting in a park to send a message that we don't want a high concentration of sex offenders in this community," said Joe Buscaino, a former Los Angeles police officer who now represents the area on the City Council.

While the pocket parks springing up around the country offer a sense of security to residents, they will probably leave more convicted sex offenders homeless. And research shows that once sex offenders lose stable housing, they become not only harder to track but also more likely to commit another crime, according to state officials involved with managing such offenders.

"Putting in parks doesn't just break up clusters -- it makes it impossible for sex offenders to find housing in the whole city," said Janet Neeley, a member of the California Sex Offender Management Board. "It's counterproductive to public safety, because when you have nothing to lose, you are much more likely to commit a crime than when you are rebuilding your life."

Restrictions on where sex offenders can live, which have been passed in most states, have already rendered most residential areas in many cities off limits.

The number of homeless sex offenders in California has increased threefold since 2006, when the latest residency restrictions were passed, and a third of sex offenders on parole are now homeless, according to reports from the Sex Offender Management Board.

The others cluster in the few pockets where they are still allowed, like Harbor Gateway, a working-class neighborhood that stretches south of the main part of the city along Interstate 110.

Because of continuing litigation over the residency restrictions, it is unclear exactly how many of the sex offenders living near the new Harbor Gateway park would have to leave the area, or when. Currently, all sex offenders, even those whose crimes were not violent or against children, must register for life in California, but only those on parole are prevented from living near parks and schools. About 3.5 percent of paroled sex offenders commit a new sex crime before the end of their three-year parole period, according to a 2008 Sex Offender Management Board report.

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