Editorial: A welcome decision limiting residency rules of Jessica’s Law
The problem with California’s version of Jessica’s Law — one of the problems, anyway — is that it so severely undermines the ability of a sex offender to return safely and responsibly to society that it may well make the person more dangerous rather than less. The measure’s blanket ban on sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of a park or school pushes many parolees out of cities and suburbs altogether, keeping them away from drug and alcohol treatment, counseling, even their parole officers.
The California Supreme Court on Monday struck down those residency provisions of the 2006 initiative, also known as Proposition 83, at least as they were applied in San Diego County (the ruling is likely to change practices statewide). The justices found not only that the rules increased homelessness and hindered access to treatment programs, but also that there was no rational relationship between the restrictions and the state’s goal of protecting children from sexual predators. In a companion ruling, the court found that officials could continue to restrict the residence of paroled sex offenders on a case-by-case basis, as was done before the ballot measure.
Both are welcome decisions. There is simply no credible evidence to show that paroled sex offenders are any more likely to commit additional offenses if they live near where children gather; besides, the restrictions weren’t limited to offenders whose victims were children. That didn’t stop foolish follow-up actions in places such as Los Angeles, where officials constructed several pocket parks — not because there was a need in those places for parks but because they were seen as a way to bar former sex offenders from the neighborhood.
Jessica’s Law and follow-up actions like L.A.'s pocket park construction were products of fear and frenzy, not serious thinking. That’s an inherent failing in making criminal law by ballot measure. The consequences are seldom thought through.
So what about Proposition 47, which recently reduced several felonies to misdemeanors? An argument can be made that it was a product of starry-eyed, wishful thinking — perhaps as dangerous as fear — and there are concerted attempts now to roll back some of its provisions.
But there is a key difference. Proposition 47 is aimed at advancing the same interest that Jessica’s Law frustrates — the rehabilitation and reintegration into society of former offenders. Police, prosecutors and lawmakers would be wise to learn from the Jessica’s Law experience and base any policies in response to Proposition 47 on neither blind fear nor unfounded hope, but on real evidence about what works and proven methods of minimizing public safety risks.
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