I USED TO THINK something was wrong with Iowa. So many Iowans left the Hawkeye State to come here. Maybe it was all that corn. Maybe it was the early presidential caucuses.
Now Iowans must think there's something wrong with us. They warned us — Iowa's lawmen, prosecutors, even a victims' rights group. Don't pass Proposition 83, they said. It's a mug's game. You think it protects people from registered sex offenders, but it doesn't. It'll backfire on you.
We still went for 83. Went for it? We practically got engaged to it. It got more votes than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But even 5 million votes can't change the fact that Proposition 83 kind of sucks. Just as Iowa told us. Iowa knows, because it passed a similar law, and now it wishes it hadn't.
The problem can be summed up by what Samuel Johnson — the Mark Twain of 18th century England — told a writer: Your work is "both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."
The good parts of 83 aren't original, they're already law: Certain sex offenders can't legally hang out near parks or schools, and high-risk parolees have to wear GPS devices. As for the original parts — such as not living within 2,000 feet of a school or park and wearing GPS monitors for life — they're not good. Proposition 83 is so awkwardly written that a court must decide whether it applies just to newly paroled sex offenders or retroactively to all 85,000 of California's registered sex offenders. Proposition 83 could force them to sell their homes, perhaps leave their jobs.
Lifetime GPS monitoring sounds swell, until you think how overwhelming it would be to constantly, conscientiously track all those sex offenders: How many hard-core sexual criminals — like the one arrested last week after his electronic ankle bracelet showed he'd trespassed at a closed L.A. elementary school — might go unnoticed in the sheer volume of beeping GPS signals?
It doesn't matter whether the offender is a 60-year-old man convicted of felony public weeny-wagging back in the Johnson administration or an 18-year-old who had sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend, or a hard-core, inveterate molester. Proposition 83 applies to them all.
Iowans thought more restrictions would make them safer. But unintended consequences have forced offenders into the countryside, into truck stops, cornfields — or completely "off our radar," as one lawman said. Some safety.
That's Iowa's problem. Here's mine: California's popular, front-running gubernatorial candidate should have had the guts to point all this out. Five million Californians might still have voted for 83, but they would have done so knowing more about its consequences. He didn't.
Schwarzenegger, the un-politician, could have told voters that he had already signed law after law cracking down on registered sex offenders — some just weeks before the election. He's a smart man surrounded by smart people; he had to have understood 83's flaws. But he supported it.
No one ever lost votes going after sex offenders, and no one ever won votes sticking up for them. But this isn't about sticking up for sex offenders. It's about sticking up for sensible policy. If a landslide maverick such as Schwarzenegger won't take that risk, who will?
In Iowa, prosecutors have asked for fixes in the sex offender law. Nothing doing. Iowa state Sen. Larry McKibben told my colleague Jenifer Warren, "We live in a nasty political environment, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to take a vote on something that somebody could turn into a direct-mail piece saying I was going soft on sex offenders."
Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco has gotten a taste of this. The Democrat has consistently suggested alternatives, such as focusing on tougher penalties for the most dangerous sex offenders. For that, he was labeled "a danger to society" and, in a GOP press release, a "friend of molesters."
He calls it new McCarthyism: "You either march to this particular drumbeat on the issue of sex offenders, or we will destroy your reputation and your credibility. So you don't even dare think there's another way to approach this."
Proposition 83's co-sponsors are husband-and-wife Republican state legislators, George and Sharon Runner of Lancaster. They've insisted they never intended 83 to be retroactive. But a John Doe sex offender who has long since served his time and parole went to court the day after the election to make sure the law would not force him to move. Maybe John Doe's lawyers will call the Runners to explain their intentions on the issue. And next election, what would their political opponents make of it if they have testified on behalf of a convicted sex offender?
Proposition 83 will be clarified by a judge. The larger question it raises can't be. You can't pass a measure to force politicians to get a spine. Well, you could — you can pass a proposition for just about anything — but you could never enforce it.
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