With due respect to Jethro Tull, very few child molesters spend their time sitting on park benches eyeing little girls with bad intent. You’re more likely to find them at your church, or in your house, than at a public playground. But that’s not stopping Orange County politicians, especially Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, from pandering to voters’ worst instincts by pursuing a pointless crusade to bar those convicted of sex crimes from parks.
After the county Board of Supervisors approved a Rackauckas-backed ordinance last month forbidding sex offenders from entering dozens of county parks and beaches, the district attorney followed up by sending letters to city leaders throughout Orange County urging them to do the same, since the county measure doesn’t apply to city parks. The missive found a receptive audience in Irvine, which is now considering its own parks ordinance. Although measures aimed at tracking sex offenders or imposing harsher penalties against them are common in California, this is believed to be the first attempt in the state to limit the places registered offenders can visit.
Why parks? Why not? Child molesters are every parent’s nightmare, and laws aimed at punishing or discouraging them are wildly popular with voters, whether they’re effective or not. Among California’s more misguided efforts was Jessica’s Law, a voter initiative that passed by a landslide in 2006 but that may have undermined rather than enhanced public safety. The law forbade sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools and parks, restricting their housing choices so severely in cities such as Los Angeles that many were forced to live on the streets, destabilizing their lives and making it more likely they would commit further crimes. In ruling the residency restrictions unconstitutional last fall, Superior Court Judge Peter Espinoza wrote, “The evidence presented suggests that despite lay belief, a sex offender parolee’s residential proximity to a school or park where children regularly gather does not bear on the parolee’s likelihood to commit a sexual offense against a child.”
The Orange County ordinance, too, may well be unconstitutional. More important, it is unfair and ineffective. Registered sex offenders aren’t all child molesters; some men are on the registry for having sex with underage girlfriends when they themselves were still teenagers. Though some sex offenders are incorrigible, many have done their time and turned their lives around. Should all be permanently forbidden from taking their own children to the zoo, or the beach? And will keeping them away from parks really protect children? An estimated 90% of sex crimes against children are committed by family members or acquaintances, not perverts on park benches.
Irvine’s City Council could save itself some legal headaches, and retain some self-respect, by dumping Rackauckas’ pandering parks ordinance.