When a sex offender moves in next door

One San Diego community wrestles with the pending release of a violent offender: How much of a risk is he? Where can he live?

A court hearing Tuesday could help answer, for one San Diego area community, a vexing question about the balance between public safety and rehabilitation: Where can sexually violent predators relocate once the state moves to release them?

Residents of a community near San Diego State University are anxiously waiting to find out where Douglas Badger, deemed a high-risk sex offender, will wind up living when he is released from a state mental hospital, possibly in the next few weeks.

The issue has already stirred deep concerns. Hundreds of residents packed a Baptist church last month for a meeting with local officials after they found out that Mr. Badger, 63, was slated to live in a halfway house in their neighborhood, which is also home to the state university and within walking distance of Platt College, a design school.

Badger's release would be the first in San Diego County - and only the fourth in California - of someone classified by the state as an "SVP," a sexually violent predator. That label, prosecutors say, makes him "the worst of the worst," a violent offender with a mental disorder.

The impending release raises issues California and other states have yet to resolve regarding how criminals such as Badger can be brought back into society. Because of the federal 1996 passage of Megan's Law, every state now notifies a community when a dangerous sex offender is being released, and many sex offenders are required to register with law enforcement. Most are not SVPs. Public fears are fueled in part by the record of high recidivism by sex offenders.

The outcry at the public meeting prompted the owner of the halfway house to change his mind about letting Badger live there. So, at a hearing Jan. 31, Judge David Danielsen asked all parties to go back to find a new location for Badger, and report to him at a hearing Tuesday. The community concerns range from panic to hope for rehabilitation.

"There are sex offenders in plenty of neighborhoods, some identified and some not," says Patti Saraniero, a mother of two boys who lives near the halfway house. "I think as a society we are very ambivalent about people who commit crimes. We have a prison system where we punish people but don't rehabilitate them. Here was someone in the process of being rehabilitated and we turned him away. I'm not saying what he did was OK, but he's got to go somewhere."

In the next decade more of the 560 SVPs now in the state's sex offender commitment program will be released; many, like Badger, were convicted before California's "three strikes" laws were enacted in 1994 and were not given life sentences, as they probably would have been. "We are going to have four or five of these guys coming to us over the next several years,"says Ron Roberts, a supervisor with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. "But where do we put them? We can't put a wall up around San Diego County."

In California, residents can log onto a sex offender registry and see where offenders live. "How many of these people are we driving underground?" asks Ron Kokish, a clinical social worker who has directed sex offender treatment programs. "They lose their jobs, their homes, move, don't register [as a sex offender], and live in constant fear. This makes them more likely to offend again."

Recidivism among sex offenders is generally accepted to be very high, although accurate figures are hard to find. The latest available figures from the California Department of Corrections show that of the 2,300 felons who had committed sex crimes and were released from prison in 2001, about 1,000 returned to prison within two years.

After release, an SVP like Badger are monitored electronically and receive psychiatric treatment - something 99 percent of sex offenders don't get, says Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the state attorney general. Despite that, the public objected to Badger's release here because of the concentration of college students that would be living in close proximity.

Badger, who is a diagnosed schizophrenic, has a history of sexually assaulting mostly young male hitchhikers, often at gunpoint. His most recent convictions include one in 1981 for the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 29-year-old man; in 1991 he was convicted of sexual assault against a 21-year-old man. He has admitted to victimizing 20 others. In 1997, after serving a prison term, he was admitted to Atascadero State Mental Hospital. Last year, according to the state Department of Mental Health, Badger petitioned for release. After extensive evaluation, it was granted.

But no matter where Badger winds up, it's unlikely he'll be well received. Amy McVeigh, a mother of two who also lives near the halfway house proposed for Badger, says she was stunned by news of his release. "I thought it was odd he would be placed in the middle of a college community. It's like releasing a pedophile by the elementary school," says Ms. McVeigh. "A lot of us moved here looking for a safe place to raise our kids. My son's preschool was right near the halfway house, and we were all very upset."

But if community rejections like this continue, says Cindy Radavsky, assistant deputy director for the California Department of Mental Health's long-term care services, it seems inevitable that someone will challenge the constitutionality of requiring notification, treatment, and monitoring of high-risk offenders. "These guys have a constitutional right to due process and introduction back into the community."

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