Los Angeles adding parks to force out sex offenders living nearby
State law prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a park or school. By building the park, officials said, they would effectively force the sex offenders to leave the neighborhood.
This section of Harbor Gateway has one of the city's highest concentrations of registered sex offenders: 86 live in a 13-block area. Los Angeles plans to build a total of three pocket parks with the intent of driving out registered sex offenders; two will be in Wilmington.
At one-fifth of an acre, the pocket park will barely have room for two jungle gyms, some benches and a brick wall. But the enjoyment the park will give children is a secondary concern for officials.
The action marks the latest campaign by local governments to drive sex offenders farther into the fringes of society. The state law already bans offenders from living in huge swaths of urban areas, pushing them into industrial districts and remote towns and into neighborhoods like Harbor Gateway that lack schools and parks.
Communities in Orange County have passed laws barring sex offenders from county parks and beaches. There is a new push at Los Angeles City Hall to ban offenders from living near day-care centers and locations that house after-school programs.
Backers of the park plan say it's a novel way to move out offenders while providing more recreation space.
The effort, however, has others questioning whether these restrictions make communities safer and whether they infringe on the rights of offenders.
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation study released in October showed that about 2% of convicted sex offenders are sent back to prison on a new sex-abuse offense. The study covered data from 2008.
"People are running around with hysteria when they don't know the facts," said Janice Bellucci, president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of those convicted of sex crimes. "I understand that sex offenders are not a popular part of society, but they have constitutional rights."
The restrictions on where offenders can live have resulted in a proliferation of group homes in acceptable areas that house large numbers of them. In Harbor Gateway, up to five offenders share one room, according to the National Sex Registry website.
On Flint Avenue in Wilmington, a former hotel has been converted into housing that caters to sex offenders. Young children often walk through the neighborhood on their way to a nearby elementary school. Some residents refer to the area as "pervert row."
There have been several reports of indecent exposure, according to Los Angeles police officer Brian Cook. The city now wants to spend $6 million to build a park next to the East Wilmington Greenbelt Community Center. The park would be a block away from the hotel, and city officials said it would force offenders to move out.
The city plans to purchase the land from a private owner, address environmental contamination on the site and develop it into a park.
A third pocket park would be built at the Drum Barracks Museum in Wilmington, near another heavy concentration of sex offenders. Wilmington residents say their neighborhood has become a dumping ground for sex offenders because it lacks parks.
"It's a tough issue," said Mary Gant, a Wilmington resident and community activist. "I know they have to live somewhere. But I don't think you should dump them all in one area."
Photo: A pit bull snarls from its side of the fence next to a tiny strip of land being turned into a park that will force sex offenders to move out of the neighborhood. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times