Sex Offender Crackdown Is Tied to Trend
A national movement to restrict where released sex offenders may live has swept into California this election season, with voters set to approve or reject a far-reaching crackdown on society’s most loathed ex-convicts.
Proposition 83 on the Nov. 7 ballot -- dubbed Jessica’s Law by proponents -- would lengthen prison and parole terms for the most violent sex offenders and make possession of child pornography a felony.
In addition, its most controversial provision would ban all released sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Local governments could declare additional locations off-limits, and sex offenders would be monitored for life with an electronic tracking device.
If passed, the measure would cost the state at least $200 million annually within a decade, according to the nonpartisan legislative analyst, largely because of the satellite tracking and police needed to enforce it.
The initiative’s sponsors, a husband-and-wife team of Republican legislators, say the measure is worth the expense. Although there are no studies showing that residency limits reduce the number of sex crimes, they say common sense and public anxiety make it a smart idea to ban former offenders from areas where children gather.
“When a child walks to school, he or she shouldn’t have to walk by a molester’s home to get there,” said state Sen. George Runner of Lancaster, lead proponent of the proposition with his wife, Sharon, an assemblywoman.
Foes say the measure is based on hysteria, not facts, and ignores a central truth: that nine out of 10 sex offenders are not monsters lurking in the bushes but instead prey on people they know. Opponents, including a coalition representing victims, also note that the law would not forbid loitering near schools and say it could put children in greater danger by giving parents a false sense of security.
Citing the experience of other states, some scholars say the residency rule would banish the former convicts from urban settings that offer the services, jobs and family connections that help them remain law-abiding -- and dump them on rural communities ill-equipped to supervise them. In Iowa, prosecutors who once backed such a law said the residency limit had backfired, and they now want it repealed.
According to maps prepared by the state Senate, the initiative would bar sex offenders from living in nearly all of San Francisco and much of urban Los Angeles, while they would be allowed to live in many less densely populated suburbs around the state.
State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), whose farm-belt district in the Central Valley is one area where sex offenders could legally live, said the measure would legalize “predator dumping.” The Bakersfield Californian newspaper agreed, and editorialized against it under the headline “Our children deserve same rights as city kids.”
Such worries have prompted one supporter, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, to lose much of his zeal for the measure. Although he supports the tougher sentencing it offers, Cooley says, “the potential unintended consequences -- like burdening our rural areas -- have not been well thought out.”
“It makes you wonder if it’s a false promise based upon a false premise,” Cooley said.
Many other officeholders have expressed no such qualms. The initiative has been endorsed by GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed the ballot argument in favor of it, and his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides. It is also endorsed by Crime Victims United and statewide associations of police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors.
An August Field Poll showed the proposition with a lead of nearly 7 to 1, a reflection, analysts say, of the public’s deep unease about a category of offenders often linked to heinous, headline-grabbing crimes.
It was just such a crime that gave birth to the initiative. In February 2005, a 9-year-old Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford, was kidnapped and killed, allegedly by a convicted sex offender who worked as a laborer at her school.
Within three months of the killing, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had signed legislation imposing 25-years-to-life sentences on those convicted of lewd and lascivious molestation of children under 12. The Jessica Lunsford Law also required lifetime electronic tracking of released sex offenders, and made schools off-limits.
The nationwide push to exile sex offenders encompasses at least 18 states and hundreds of municipalities. In South Dakota, a law bars sex offenders from living within 500 feet of schools and imposes a prison term of up to two years for violations. In Georgia, offenders are also barred from living near bus stops and churches.
Private companies, meanwhile, are beginning to capitalize on public revulsion, with one Houston developer building “sex-offender-free subdivisions.” Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly has nurtured the movement, advocating passage of measures like Proposition 83 by every state.
The constitutionality of zoning out sex offenders is somewhat murky. Iowa’s 2,000-foot restriction was overturned in 2003. But the state’s Supreme Court later ruled that any infringement on sex offenders’ freedom of residency was superseded by the state’s interest in protecting its citizens. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it.
The California initiative comes at a time when public concern over crime is low, surveys show. And sex crimes against children have declined in recent years, said Franklin Zimring, a professor of criminal law at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.
Zimring added that despite the persistent myth about strangers presenting the greatest threat, only 7% of juvenile victims are assaulted by strangers, according to a 2000 report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Fifty-nine percent of victims are attacked by an acquaintance and 34% are preyed on by a family member, the report showed.
“It may just be that kids know a lot of pedophiles,” Zimring said. “Or it could be that sometimes Uncle Willy gets drunk, and God knows what Uncle Willy is going to do, and to whom and where.”
Although Runner has said sex offenders have the highest recidivism rates among felons, government statistics show the opposite. Over a three-year period after their release from prison, 5.3% of sex offenders were rearrested for a new sex crime, according to another Justice Department report. Sex offenders also were less likely than other felons to be rearrested for any different type of crime.
“This is solid data,” Zimring said, “but it is strong feelings -- not facts -- that dominate in this arena.”
Runner acknowledged that he has strong feelings about the topic. He said he decided to launch the initiative drive after Democrats in the Legislature balked at proposals to increase prison time for molesters, lengthen parole for the worst offenders and ensure that those who rape children spend at least 25 years behind bars.
“It was time to take it to the people,” Runner said. “We believe this is something they want.”
Although Runner said it was his intent that the measure apply only to sex offenders released from prison in the future, there is no language to that effect in the initiative. Opponents say it would also sweep up the more than 85,000 registered sex offenders who have already served their time. Both sides agree that such disputes will probably be resolved as part of a court challenge if the measure passes.
Also contentious is the question of using satellite monitoring to watch every sex offender until his or her death. Under Proposition 83, offenders would wear a wireless, waterproof bracelet the size of a deck of cards on an ankle. They would wear the bands at all times, and their movements would be tracked from a distant location.
Supporters say tracking would keep predators from committing new crimes by acting as a deterrent. Foes say requiring offenders to be monitored, regardless of the severity of their crimes or the current threat they pose to the public, would overwhelm police and divert attention from the truly dangerous.
In California, about 440 high-risk sex offenders are monitored electronically now; 1,500 more parolees will be added next year.
The technology can alert authorities when paroled offenders stray into banned areas, but officials said agents around the state more typically rely on it after the fact, to verify that parolees were truthful in reporting their whereabouts. Whether more real-time monitoring would occur under Proposition 83, given the manpower needed to watch so many blinking lights on a map, is unclear.
Among those watching the campaign most anxiously are sex offenders themselves, thousands of whom would be required to move if the initiative passes. Mel Hellman, 62, of Whittier is one. He lives near two elementary schools and a high school. He has owned his home since 1971 and also owns a local electronics store.
In 1969, he pleaded no contest to false imprisonment of two teenage girls he knew and attempted insertion of a foreign object. He served no prison time but was on probation for five years and now must register as a sex offender every year.
“I made a terrible mistake, and every day I live with the guilt of that and feel horrible inside,” said Hellman, who is married and has three children and three grandchildren. “But it was 27 years ago, and I’ve never had another incident.... Everyone hates people like me, and that’s OK. But we’re not all the same.”
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In California, about 8,000 people are convicted of a felony sex offense every year. About 39% are sent to state prison; most of the rest get county jail time and probation. Proposition 83 on the Nov. 7 ballot would:
* Prohibit registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, park or other location selected by local government.
* Require lifetime satellite monitoring of felony sex offenders.
* Impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life for rapists of children.
* Extend parole from three to 10 years for those convicted of serious sex crimes.
* Boost penalties for possession of child pornography and Internet luring.
* Allow an offender to be classified as a sexually violent predator after assault on one victim, instead of two.
* Permit confinement of released sexually violent predators in state mental hospitals for an indeterminate term, rather than two years.
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