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Fury over sex offender's freedom

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sex offender charged in a teen's murder and suspected in another murder
  • Navarrette: Why wasn't he in custody or being monitored?
  • He says laws should be changed to prevent similar crimes
  • Offender's parole file was destroyed by a state agency
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com

San Diego, California (CNN) -- In the movie "Law Abiding Citizen," Gerard Butler plays a man who loses his family when his wife and daughter are raped and murdered. After the main culprit receives a light sentence as part of a plea bargain and gets released from prison much sooner than he should have, our hero goes all "Death Wish" on the creep. He kidnaps him, drugs him and surgically dissects him into two-dozen pieces.

Vengeance is wrong and can't be condoned. But when you're caught up in the tension of the film, it looks like something else: justice.

In any case, I wouldn't be surprised if, throughout San Diego County, video stores are having trouble keeping that movie on the shelf. For the last 10 days, 3.2 million people have been working through a collective sense of fury and sorrow and more fury over two gruesome discoveries and one depressing revelation.

The discoveries came when authorities found -- within days of each other -- the bodies of two teenage girls, 17-year-old Chelsea King of Poway, California, and 14-year-old Amber Dubois of Escondido, California. King had gone for an afternoon run in a local park a few days earlier. Dubois had vanished a year earlier while walking to school.

John Albert Gardner III, a convicted sex offender, is charged with murdering King. A preliminary hearing for Gardner, who is also "a focus of the investigation" into the death of Dubois, has been scheduled for August 4. San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has said that Gardner is eligible for the death penalty but she hasn't decided if she will seek it.

The revelation, as more details surface about Gardner and his history with the criminal justice system, is that the system for dealing with repeat sex offenders and child predators is, in California and probably other states as well, beyond broken.

A wounded and grieving community wants to know why someone like Gardner, a known sex offender, was not still sitting in a jail cell after an earlier offense or at least under some kind of monitored electronic supervision. People want to know how it is that Gardner -- who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2000 for molesting, beating and falsely imprisoning a 13-year-old girl but eventually served only five years and three years on parole -- was apparently able to move freely and do as he pleased.

Supposedly, Gardner was being monitored by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, for whatever that's worth, and it might not be worth all that much. The Associated Press reported yesterday that Gardner violated his parole by moving too close to a school but was allowed to remain free, according to parole records obtained by the news agency.

The records also show several other violations. Had Gardner been returned to prison, he would have been evaluated for commitment to a state mental hospital as a sexually violent predator and qualified for wearing an electronic tracking device for the rest of his life.

We may never know what parole officers observed and concluded when they observed Gardner on the outside. Corrections officials claim that his "field file" was destroyed under a department policy that requires documents be destroyed within one year after a person's release from parole.

This smells fishy. Here you have a state agency known for backlogs and inefficiency and, yet, in this case, it miraculously managed to summon the efficiency to destroy a file just when it was authorized to do so. Color me suspicious. The media should keep digging until it finds out exactly when the file was destroyed, by whom, and under what authority. And if it comes out that the file was destroyed after the girls' bodies were found and Gardner was arrested, then watch out.

Yet, even if corrections officials are telling the truth, this policy is a bad fit for repeat sex offenders who tend to, by definition, repeat their crimes. In most cases, according to the research, it's only a matter of time. So why destroy the file? Chances are that you're going to need it again sooner or later.

To his credit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, upon learning of this outrageous practice, got the chance to be a real-life action hero when he ordered the California Department of Corrections to stop destroying the field files.

Score one for the good guys. There will be more victories to come. Reform activists -- under the leadership of Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who represents the cities where King and Dubois lived -- have started what could turn out to be a national crusade to change the sex offender laws, close the loopholes and increase penalties in order to keep our children safe.

Maybe where we're headed is something like "One and You're Done" where, if you're convicted of sexually assaulting a child, you go away for 25 years. Or maybe those on parole should wear an electronic bracelet for life that is programmed to sound an alarm when the parolee goes near a park or a school.

Everything is on the table, Fletcher said at a news conference this week.

Because we remain a compassionate society, there will always be those who say that sexual predators are sick and that what they really need is treatment.

They're half right. Monsters like John Albert Gardner III who prey on children are sick. But they can't be cured. So what they need, on the first offense, is to be put away for a long time -- or, if subject to the death penalty, to be put down.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.