Sex offender free zones
Map showing areas where sex offenders can live in Bay Area.
By Oct. 31, hundreds of recently released Bay Area sex convicts must move or risk returning to prison under a 10-month-old law that carves wide legal moats around schools and child-friendly parks to keep them from living nearby.

Where they will land is anyone's guess.

State parole agents on Friday finished handing out 45-day notices to 2,741 parolee sex offenders across the state who were found in violation of Proposition 83 by living within 2,000 feet -- about four-tenths of a mile -- of schools or parks where children "regularly gather."

About 400 notices were delivered in the Bay Area, including more than 100 in the East Bay, said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In the span from Richmond to Antioch, 45 sex convicts received notices. Agents handed an additional 50 notices to parolees along the Interstate 80/880 corridor from Berkeley to Fremont.

Voters imposed the restriction in November in a 70 percent landslide for Prop. 83, known as "Jessica's Law." The measure, considered one of the nation's toughest anti-sex-offender laws, is named after Jessica Lunsford, a Florida girl who was raped and murdered in 2005 by a sex offender staying nearby.

Prop. 83 also stiffened some sex crime sentences, broadened the state's ability to commit "sexual predators" to psychiatric hospitals after their prison terms and required lifetime GPS monitoring of new sex felons.

The convicts who received the 45-day notices all were paroled after passage of Prop. 83 on Nov. 8, but before court challenges over ambiguities in the law were settled, Sessa said. A federal judge ruled this spring that the ban could not apply to about 90,000 sex offenders who were living freely in California before voters passed Prop. 83.

"These people's status was a bit unclear as they were coming out of prison," said Sessa.

Beginning in mid-August, state parole agents spread across the state, armed with handheld GPS devices to see whether the front doors of the paroled sex offenders stood within the banned zones. If so, they handed the parolee a notice: Move, or risk going back to prison.

The agents also visited 2,390 sex offenders to verify that they lived outside the 2,000-foot zones.

"We physically visited each parolee," Sessa said. "We have not had any resistance. Most of these people knew that they would probably have to move."

The notices create a dilemma not only for the parolees, but also for the state agency that tracks them. Parolees are slated to return to the counties where they committed their offenses. But state Senate maps, analyzed by the Times before passage of Prop. 83, show that the vast majority of the Bay Area falls within 2,000 feet of schools and parks.

In San Francisco, where agents served notices to 46 parolees, maps show only a few tiny shoreline pockets where newly released sex convicts could live.

In the East Bay, nearly all of the I-80/880 corridor is off limits. In West Contra Costa, sex offenders could occupy a small patch of El Sobrante, a sliver of North Richmond, some of Hercules and little else. More territory opens up in Livermore and East Contra Costa, and still more in the Central Valley.

"We're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Phil Torda, spokesman for the parole region that covers much of coastal Northern California. "The voters of the state of California passed it. We're going to enforce it."

Critics, including some sex crime prosecutors and police officials, worry that the law will gather sex convicts into mostly rural pockets.

A leading human rights group on Wednesday called for the repeal of such laws in a scathing report on sex offender laws in many states. In the report, called "No Easy Answers," Human Rights Watch argues that many states violate the rights of offenders who pose little risk and expose them to harassment and violence.

The 2,000-foot restriction in Jessica's Law applies to those convicted of sex offenses against adults and minors alike.

Sessa said he thought a parolee who falls under the law would be required to move if a local city or town built a park or tot lot near the offender's home. One Southern California city built a soccer field partly to jettison paroled sex convicts from nearby motels.

One San Francisco advocate said the 2,000-foot rule threatens public safety.

"We're looking at an immediate need for housing for almost 3,000 recently paroled sex offenders, many of whom are impoverished," said Jake Goldenflame, himself a registered sex offender. "We may be walking into a mass situation where many of them just abscond."

Attorney General Jerry Brown continues to argue in state and federal court that the 2,000-foot rule should apply to long-freed sex offenders who want to move into one of the zones.

"There's not widespread clarity on how the law will be implemented," said spokesman Gareth Lacy.

Ron Leighton, who was released this year after being convicted of oral copulation with a teenager, got a call a few weeks ago from his parole officer, telling him he needed to move from his Anaheim home, which stands a few short blocks from an elementary school and a park. He said the officer told him the zones blanketed northern Orange County.

"He said there's nowhere you can go. 'Well, do you have a map?' No, they don't have maps," said Leighton, 42. "'Do you have anywhere you can help for me to live?' No, they don't give you any help. It makes it just insanely difficult."

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or jsimerman@bayareanewsgroup.com.