S.J. County Sex Offenders Tethered to a Watchful Eye That Never Blinks

By Scott Smith
January 29, 2007

STOCKTON — Seated inside his cramped north Stockton apartment, Oscar Pelaez folded up his left pant leg and rolled down his sock. The defrocked priest exposed a bulging ankle bracelet that, he complained last week, makes him feel like a leper.

"This thing, when they put it onto me, reminds me of the day I was arrested and they started taking me to court," said Pelaez, a 40-year-old Colombian native convicted in 2002 of molesting a 16-year-old Turlock boy.

"Knowing that you are marked, you have to cover it well."

Yet there's no hiding for Pelaez and other high-risk sex offenders released from prison on parole. Parole agents in San Joaquin County so far have fitted 39 other men like him with global positioning system units.

While that is just one-third of the county's 120 high-risk sex offenders on parole, Sacramento has fitted all its 155 parolees whom officials fear might again commit rape or molest a child. Some other Central Valley counties, such as Fresno and Kern, monitor all their high-risk offenders as well.

Some San Joaquin County officials grumble that the county was shorted in its effort to protect its residents. But Bill Sessa, deputy press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said more GPS monitors are coming.

For two years, the state gradually has started fitting its 3,000 parolees such as Pelaez. While useful, Sessa said, the ankle bracelets, which bounce signals off a satellite to mark parolees' movements, are just one tool for supervising them.

"Sex offenders are on the shortest leash and under the biggest microscope out of any group of parolees that we have, no matter if they're on GPS or not," he said.

Some counties might feel left out. The $10million pilot project put 500 GPS monitors on parolees. The electronic devices cost only about $10 each, but they is of no use without the elaborate computer system and trained parole agents, Sessa said.

"That's why we've been putting it out in stages," he said.

The governor's proposed budget would allocate $30.5million next year for GPS equipment and services to monitor them, with more in the next two years, Sessa said.

Stephen Taylor, a prosecutor in the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office, said there is no time to waste when it comes to keeping a close eye on high-risk sex offenders.

Taylor, who prosecutes sex offenders, explained that before a convicted sex offender is released from prison, the inmate is evaluated to determine the likelihood he or she will commit another sex crime. Some of those are deemed high risk.

"When we say high risk, we're not kidding," Taylor said. "They've got issues. We have people who use rape as a coping mechanism for stress relief."

The GPS monitors showed their worth this month when a 12-year-old girl vanished from her family's Stockton home, launching an all-out police search.

Minutes after relatives reported her missing, parole agents in Stockton, armed with laptops, checked the movements of the county's 40 parolees on GPS monitors, finding that none of them had gone into the girl's neighborhood. They were immediately eliminated as suspects.

In the end, the girl was found. She said she wandered off on her own and was not abducted.

Richard Curtice, a Stockton parole agent supervising the high-risk sex offenders wearing GPS monitors, said his job changed dramatically in the past year when his office began using the ankle bracelets.

When Curtice started as a parole agent 17 years ago, he regularly knocked on parolees' doors to check on them. If they decided to run, he would not know until the next time he visited.

Now he can look up their movements around the clock in addition to making personal checks. Curtice's cell phone receives a text message whenever a parolee tampers with an ankle bracelet.

One recent Saturday, he received a text message that a parolee had let the charge on his ankle bracelet go down. Further investigation on Curtice's laptop revealed that the parolee had broken curfew.

"Once we lost contact with him, we issued a warrant (for his arrest) right away," Curtice said.

Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said he worries that the privacy of parolees might be violated by having somebody watch them around the clock.

Even parolees have rights, he said, adding that the intrusion could prevent them from being able to move on with life, again becoming members of the community. The ever-present monitoring might be psychologically unsettling, he said.

"What we really want for somebody on parole is for them to have stability," he said. "People with stability in their lives commit fewer crimes."

Parolees such as Pelaez, the former priest, agree. Angered about wearing the GPS monitor, Pelaez said the only job he could find was working at night in a warehouse. Once somebody learns he was convicted of a sex crime, they do not want to hire him, he said.

Pelaez said he has taken responsibility for his crime, which he called a mistake. He spent more than two years in state prison and looked forward to starting a new life outside. Then his parole agent fitted the ankle bracelet on him.

"It's part of our human life to have obstacles you have to overcome," he said. "Life continues."

Other paroled sex offenders see it differently. Jonathan Bracy, a 26-year-old man convicted for molesting a child younger than 10 in Merced, said the ankle bracelet keeps him in check.

"I've gotten used to it," he said. "It kind of keeps me on guard, knowing they always know where I'm at."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.