Tough enough?

Democrats come down hard on sex offenders—but too late to stop Jessica’s Law

Assembly Democrats have pulled out all the stops to avoid seeing the controversial “Jessica’s Law” on November’s ballot. The ballot initiative, written by state Senator George Runner and his wife, state Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, would impose some of the harshest penalties for sex crimes in the nation—including lifetime Global Positioning System (GPS) monitoring for registered sex offenders.

Amended in mid-March for the fifth time this year, the Democrats’ alternative legislation to crack down on the state’s sex offenders has now adopted so many of the provisions of Jessica’s Law that Democrats believe there’s no reason for Republicans to bring the initiative before voters in November.

But Jessica’s Law promises to energize the Republican base come election time. And critics say the law is more about politics than protecting kids.

Assembly Bill 50 lengthens parole for sex offenders from five to 10 years; eliminates “good time” credits to shorten prison terms; keeps sexually violent predators behind bars for indeterminate terms pending annual reviews; makes possession of child pornography and luring a child over the Internet punishable as felonies; and closes the same loopholes that Jessica’s Law does, including one that makes sure cops can pose as children online to catch predators.

“It clarifies even more why there’s no need for Jessica’s Law,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, A.B. 50’s primary author and chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, about the latest amendment.

But it doesn’t do what Republicans are counting on to bring people to the polls in November: require GPS monitoring of all registered sex offenders and prevent them from living within 2,000 feet—or about one-third of a mile—of schools and parks.

For backers of Jessica’s Law, those are deal-killers. They’re part of what Becky Warren, communications director for Senator George Runner, R-Antelope Valley, described as the “comprehensive approach” taken by the initiative. The senator and his wife, Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, introduced Jessica’s Law bills that died in the public-safety committees in their respective houses. The laws were named for a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered last year by a convicted child molester.

Warren explained how GPS monitoring and the 2,000-foot restriction work together: If offenders fail to register or end up homeless—as so many have in Iowa that law-enforcement officers there are seeking to rescind that state’s year-old housing restriction—GPS can be used to keep tabs on them so they’re not “lost” to the system.

Some see problems with GPS monitoring, however. Trackers can lose people wearing GPS devices when they go into a subway, train, urban or rural canyon, or thick brush. A pilot study in Washington found GPS useless for keeping tabs on homeless offenders. Others say monitoring is a bogus issue anyway since some 85 percent of molestation happens in the child’s or the offender’s home.

Monitoring all registered offenders is a waste of money, Leno said. Estimates put the cost at up to $200 million a year depending on how broadly the requirement is applied. Republicans say Jessica’s Law applies only to offenders released after the law is passed; Democrats argue that the law as written includes all 86,000 offenders currently registered in California. The constitutional issue is whether the law can apply to offenders who are no longer on probation or parole. Leno said a lobbyist for the California District Attorneys Association, which backs Jessica’s Law, told the Assembly Public Safety Committee: “It’ll get worked out in court.”

That ambiguity, Leno said, could mean that the whole issue of tougher controls on sex offenders will be set aside while it is tied up in court.

The Assembly bill, which awaits review by the Senate Public Safety Committee, appropriates $8.5 million to pay for required GPS monitoring of high-risk sex offenders on parole—about 2,000 of the 6,000 or so currently on parole for sex crimes—and makes it illegal for registered sex offenders to be on or near school grounds.

But that’s not enough protection for backers of Jessica’s Law. California currently restricts offenders on parole from living within one-quarter mile—one-half mile for high-risk offenders—of schools. The problem comes once they’re off parole. Warren said they’re moving closer to schools or other areas where children gather, like parks and playgrounds.

Democrats say the 2,000-foot residency restrictions don’t work and just push the problem from one part of the state to another.

“There is not a single shred of evidence that correlates residency restrictions with the safety of children in the community,” Leno said. “The Bakersfield Californian has editorialized strongly against Jessica’s Law. They don’t want to be a dumping ground for the state’s sex offenders. No one can live within the city of San Francisco and not be within 2,000 feet of a prohibited place.”

Laura Power, campaign manager for the initiative, disputes that it’ll drive sex offenders into rural areas: “We’ve termed it the rural myth. It will make it harder to find housing, but we feel that children should not have to walk past offenders’ homes on the way to school.”

Leno, his frustration evident in an interview last week, feels the legislative battle is a no-win situation: “If you don’t work in a bipartisan way, they call you pro-criminal. If you do work with them and meet them halfway, they just say that’s only because they’re holding a hammer over your head.”

Indeed, asked if George Runner would back the Democrats’ bill if it adopted every provision of Jessica’s Law, including the universal use of GPS and the 2,000-foot living restriction, Warren said he would still seek to bring the initiative forward. “Voters need to vote to make sure it isn’t weakened later by the Legislature,” Warren said, noting that once an initiative becomes law, it takes a two-thirds vote by lawmakers to make any subsequent changes.

“Senator Runner should be embarrassed by that statement,” Leno said. “Anyone who’s sincerely interested in crafting quality law to prevent further victimization of children and adults by sexual predators has had the opportunity to do that through the legislative process these past few weeks.”

In the Senate, two bills have passed out of the Public Safety Committee to the Appropriations Committee. Senate Bill 1178 written by Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco, calls for GPS monitoring of high-risk sex offenders while on parole. Senate Bill 1128, authored by Senator Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, includes many of the provisions of A.B. 50, toughening penalties for child molesters and Internet predators, increasing parole and barring convicted offenders from schools and other areas.

Greg Pagan, chief counsel for the Assembly Public Safety Committee, hopes those bills will dovetail with A.B. 50 in a final compromise piece of legislation.

Still, Jessica’s Law, which is backed by Governor Schwarzenegger and many law-enforcement groups, is expected to go before voters in November. Backers amassed 713,787 signatures—nearly twice the number required—to qualify the initiative for the ballot.

Warren credits the initiative with getting Democrats “moving in our direction. They know the voters will vote for this. Californians have always voted tough on crime.”

Leno has been called “soft on crime” by Republicans, blasted by Bill O’Reilly for refusing “to protect the kids with tough laws” and personally attacked because of his sexual orientation (Leno is gay) in media reports on this issue.

Leno tossed one back at the Republicans: “It’s all about scoring political points. It’s not about preventing victimization. And they’re supposed to be for the children.”