Put the brakes on Prop. 83

Alex Landon is a criminal-law specialist and past president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice who has worked with the California Innocence Project

California voters appear on the verge of embracing Jessica’s Law. What is there to stop them?

No powerful anti-Proposition 83 groups will form, like opponents of tobacco or greenhouse-gas laws, unless you count a few conscience-driven folks or the long-dead framers of the Constitution, with their inclination to protect even those convicted of crimes.

Conservative Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, used paid signature-gatherers to get Jessica’s Law on the ballot after it was killed by her legislative colleagues. Backers hope voters won’t look beyond the seductive title: “The Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act: Jessica’s Law.”

For skeptics, boosters resuscitate an argument that needs a stake through its heart. Sex offenders have “incredible” re-offense rates, they claim. In reality, they are low—far lower than property and drug offenders. These shrewd politicians are using techniques honed with other “designer laws”—measures hastily passed in the wake of very rare but high-profile tragedies—to push Prop. 83, Megan’s Law, the Amber Alert—I’ve never heard of one that’s not named after a white child.

Here, Republicans have been throwing $150-a-head fund-raisers spotlighting the father of the murdered Florida 9-year-old who provides the law’s name in a cruel and titillating spectacle.

And what of Jessica’s Law’s myriad proposals: longer sentences, large “no-live” zones for convicted people, global-positioning bracelets to monitor them, and even Orwellian redefinition of nonviolent crimes as violent? But consider these selected stones: GPS for thousands is both overbroad and exorbitantly expensive; and no-live zones are useless and counterproductive.

Consider that Iowa prosecutors recently published a damning putdown of no-live zones, in use in that state for years. Or note that Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, once co-chair of the Prop. 83 campaign, has come out against no-live zones and GPS monitoring.

Prop. 83 backers are counting on reflexive support from voters who remember that era when sex-crime convictions were scarce. Those days are long past.

Now, one in every 200 California men is on Megan’s list. This paralyzing level of punishment contradicts California’s underlying optimism. Instead of erecting an expensive police state, let’s focus on urgent challenges such as the environment.