Revisit Jessica’s Law
Of all the ill-considered ballot initiatives approved by California voters over the years, few can match Jessica’s Law for sheer self-destructiveness. The measure, billed as a way to protect children from sexual predators when it appeared on the ballot in 2006 as Proposition 83, is worsening the yawning state budget gap amid zero evidence that it’s protecting anyone -- in fact, according to a state panel, it may be threatening public safety.
This page warned that the initiative would be an expensive mistake, but that didn’t stop 70% of voters from approving it. That may be because sexual predators are nobody’s idea of a good neighbor, and voters thought that forcing sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devices for life and forbidding them to live within 2,000 feet of schools and parks would keep them at bay. What they didn’t consider were cost and practicality.
Among its many failings, the measure doesn’t distinguish between criminals who are at high risk of re-offending and those who aren’t. That means a teenager convicted of having sex with his underage girlfriend, as just one example, is subject to GPS monitoring and residence restrictions for the rest of his life, even if he never commits another crime. It also fails to specify what agency is responsible for monitoring those thousands of former inmates, or to devote money to pay for it.
State corrections officials announced Jan. 12 that they are now monitoring all 6,622 paroled sex offenders with GPS devices, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger set aside $106 million in last year’s budget for the program. Where the state will come up with the money while facing a $42-billion shortfall over the next 18 months is an open question. What’s more, the state will monitor sex offenders only for as long as they remain on parole -- after that, it’s up to municipal agencies, none of which have the staff, equipment or spare funding to do the job.
The expense might be worthwhile if Jessica’s Law were actually reducing sex crimes. Yet research has found no connection between where a sex offender lives and the likelihood that he’ll offend again, nor is there any evidence that GPS monitoring lowers recidivism. Further, it’s very hard for parolees to find homes that aren’t near schools or parks, leading to a 12-fold increase in the number of homeless sex offenders since the law was passed in 2006. A lack of stable housing only increases the odds that an ex-con will return to crime -- or as the state Sex Offender Management Board put it in a report Tuesday: “Residency restrictions that preclude or eliminate appropriate offender housing can threaten public safety instead of enhancing it.”
Lawmakers rarely show the courage to fix problems created by get-tough-on-crime voter initiatives, but there will never be a better time to improve Jessica’s Law. The state budget and the prison system are in crisis and must be reinvented, and amending this law -- which the Legislature can do with a two-thirds vote -- would benefit them both. Ideally, the measure should be overturned, but at a minimum the Legislature should create a review process that allows low-risk offenders to escape the residency and monitoring rules. California simply can’t afford to pay more to be less safe.
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