Investigation: Sex offenders getting harder to track

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Law enforcement in Kern County is finding it increasingly difficult to keep track of sex offenders.

A growing number of registered sex offenders are mixing in with the homeless population. The change has been happening since Jessica's Law was implemented statewide in 2006.

"Five years after the law was enacted, we noticed a significant increase of registrants who were registering as transients," said Kern County Sheriff's Detective Randall Meyer with the Sexual Abuse and Assault Investigative Unit.

According to the state Attorney General's Office, there are 2,312 as of May 19 living in Kern County. Slightly more than half of them reside in the greater Bakersfield area. The rest are scattered throughout the county.

Under Jessica's Law, registered sex offenders must live at least 2,000 feet from a school or park.

At least six cities in Kern County - California City, Delano, Shafter, Taft, Tehachapi and Wasco - have separate ordinances that place further restrictions on where sex offenders can live and gather.

Kern County also has a sex offender ordinance but is not as restrictive as the ones adopted by the cities.

The combination of laws and ordinances may be a reason more sex offenders are not finding housing and list themselves as homeless.

And, that adds a new problem for law enforcement and the public who want to know where sex offenders reside.

"For a transient, we don't have a correct address at this point in time and no address we can check on the registrants," said Meyer. That means a transient sex offender can be staying anywhere and law enforcement has no idea where to find the person in order to check he or she is in compliance with Jessica's Law.

To complicate matters, Meyer said his unit is currently unable to enforce the law. Jessica's Law is currently being legally challenged as being unconstitutional, and two cases are under review by the California Supreme Court.

"At this point in time, law enforcement cannot enforce that law," said Meyer.

The areas in Bakersfield that have the greatest number of sex offenders are found in zip codes 93307, 93308 and 93305, according to Megan's Law website, which lists and maps the area where sex offenders live.

Other communities have seen an increase in sex offenders. The Kern River Valley, which has a much smaller population than Bakersfield, now has the second highest number of sex offenders living in Lake Isabella (31), Weldon (11), Wofford Heights (10), Kernville (4) and Mt. Mesa (1).

"It's a concern for everybody. You can't let your kids go out and play anymore," said Sharon Coughlin of Lake Isabella.

Meyer advises the public to keep informed as much as possible about the whereabouts of registered sex offenders who are not transients. One tool is the Megan's Law website, which the public can use to find sex offenders either through their name, address county, city or zip code.

Another site is called Offender Watch.

This site will alert you through email when a sex offender moves in to a designated location. The site is accessible through the Kern County Sheriff's Office website, however Offender Watch is currently down but expected to be operating soon, said Meyer.