Laws Tighten Rules for Sex Offenders
Calling public safety government’s most important job, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday signed a package of bills increasing prison terms for many sex offenders and barring them from loitering near schools and parks once they are released.
The measures, signed seven weeks before voters will decide on a ballot initiative offering similar provisions, also require that sex offenders deemed high-risk by authorities wear electronic tracking devices while on parole.
Backers said the new laws give California the nation’s toughest restrictions on sex offenders, a category of felons facing an expanding national crackdown spawned by several high-profile crimes.
Schwarzenegger, flanked at a Capitol signing ceremony by a bipartisan group of legislators and police, said the bills will “help us fight sexual predators and make our state a safer place to live and raise our families.”
The new laws, Schwarzenegger added, will “keep the worst of the worst locked up and ... keep sex offenders away from schools and parks and other places where children spend time.”
The broadest measure in the package, SB 1128 by state Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), would increase the penalty for child rape to 25 years to life in prison.
It also would allow possession of child pornography to be charged as a felony, extend prison sentences for Internet luring and lengthen parole terms for violent ex-felons to 10 years.
Other bills would require registered sex offenders to disclose their registration status when applying for certain jobs and would create a Sex Offender Management Board to help oversee the controversial population.
Analysts say the legislation will cost the state more than $200 million annually, largely by expanding the prison population and requiring more parole agents to monitor ex-offenders for longer periods of time.
The bill signing follows a period of bitter rhetoric and partisan jockeying over the sex offender issue in Sacramento as Schwarzenegger is up for reelection and 100 of 120 legislative seats are on the ballot. At hearings on the subject earlier this year, some Republicans called Democrats “pro-criminal,” while other legislators spoke emotionally of their own molestations and the need for tougher punishment.
The Alquist bill, which cleared the Legislature without a single “no” vote, was put forth by Democrats after Republicans failed to win passage of their version. Frustrated, two GOP legislators launched a bid to qualify their version for the November ballot, resulting in Proposition 83, dubbed “Jessica’s Law” by proponents.
The initiative differs from the bills in two major respects, involving electronic tracking of ex-offenders and limits on where they may live. Under Proposition 83, all registered sex offenders would be required to undergo electronic monitoring for life, regardless of their offense or the likelihood that they will offend again. Under SB 1178 by state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), signed by the governor, high-risk felons would be tracked with electronic devices while on parole.
The ballot measure also imposes a residency restriction, prohibiting ex-offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, parks, or additional locations identified by local governments. The legislation bans loitering around schools, parks or other locations where vulnerable populations congregate, but does not limit where ex-offenders may live.
Some experts say the new laws make Proposition 83 unnecessary, because it mirrors many of the tougher sentencing aspects of the legislation. Critics also contend that the loitering ban contained in legislation would be more effective than simply limiting where ex-offenders may live.
“The bills the governor is signing give California virtually every positive thing that could come out of Jessica’s Law,” said Robert Coombs of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide network of rape crisis centers. “These bills do not take sex crime lightly, but they do the job in a more thoughtful way than Jessica’s Law.”
Schwarzenegger, however, said the state still needs Proposition 83, and state Sen. Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno), a coauthor of one bill signed by the governor, agreed. Poochigian said the ballot measure is tougher in one respect, allowing designation of an offender as a sexually violent predator after one victim, instead of two.
Among those on hand for the ceremony outside the Capitol were the parents of Courtney Sconce, a 12-year-old Rancho Cordova girl abducted, raped and killed in 2000. Mark and Cindy Sconce wore buttons showing their daughter’s face and held hands throughout the event.
Afterward, Mark Sconce called the bill-signing “one brick in the wall needed to keep our children safe.” Cindy Sconce said it was unclear whether the new laws might have saved her daughter’s life had they been on the books six years ago. But she hoped they would save other children.
“You can’t go back and say, ‘What if,’ ” Cindy Sconce said. “But the person who took Courtney was involved in child pornography, so this law [the Alquist bill] might have taken care of him before he got to the point of harming someone.”
Cracking down on sex offenders has become a national trend. A federal study showed a 79% decline in sexual assaults against children ages 12 to 17 between 1993 and 2003.
The number of arrests for sex crimes against children in California also has declined somewhat during this decade, despite population growth of 6%, state statistics show.