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Jessica's Law comes to California

Some worry ballot initiative would bring sex offenders to the Valley

By E.J. Schultz / Bee Capitol Bureau, 10/23/06 

SACRAMENTO -- Voters will be asked Nov. 7 to add California to the growing list of states enacting Jessica's Law, a politically popular measure that toughens sex-crime penalties and requires lifetime monitoring of some offenders.

In Fresno County, where there is about one registered sex offender for every 94 children under the age of 15, Proposition 83 -- as it will appear on the ballot -- would seem to be a sure-fire winner.

But some elected officials are concerned about a controversial provision they fear would attract sex offenders to the region.

If the measure passes -- and polls indicate it will -- registered sex offenders would be prohibited from living within 2,000 feet of any school or park. Large parts of urban Los Angeles and San Francisco would be off limits -- but not big chunks of the wide-open San Joaquin Valley.

"The urban areas should not be dumping their garbage in our back-yard," said Assembly Member Juan Arambula, D-Fresno.

Those pushing the measure say such fears are overblown. 

"This onslaught of sex offenders is just not a reality," said Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster. 

Runner sponsored the initiative along with his wife, Sharon, an Assembly member, in an attempt to bypass the Democratic-controlled Legislature that they believe failed to act.

At a cost of at least $200 million annually, Prop. 83 would enact some of the most sweeping changes to the state's criminal code since 1994's "Three Strikes" law.

Felony registered sex offenders would be tracked for the rest of their lives through the use of Global Positioning System devices. And prison and parole terms would be lengthened for certain sex offenses. For instance, the measure makes possession of child pornography a felony and ensures that convicted child molesters get minimum sentences of 15 years to life in prison if they molest a child under the age of 14.

In the Valley, the most controversial provision is the residency restriction.

Maps prepared by the state Senate show that major portions of big cities would be off limits, including large sections of Fresno. In effect, offenders could be forced into the many rural towns that dot the Valley. 

"In L.A., San Francisco, you don't have to worry about sexual offenders because we're going to be moving them down the Central Valley in a huge way," said Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter.

He plans to introduce legislation that would allow small towns to put boundaries around not just parks and schools, but soccer fields, pumpkin patches, school bus routes and other areas where children gather. 

"I want to cover everything that we can to make sure we protect ourselves against dumping," he said. 

Runner disagrees with the notion that the offenders will flock to the Valley. He says existing laws limiting where offenders can live have not led to a mass exodus out of big cities. Current law bars parolees convicted of certain sex offenses against children from living within 1,320 feet of a school. High-risk offenders can't live within 2,640 feet.

Expanding the restrictions to include parks and making the rules apply to all offenders -- even when off parole -- would undoubtedly increase the number of people affected.

Fresno County had 2,342 registered sex offenders as of June, but only about 400 lived in unincorporated areas, which are typically more rural, according to local law enforcement agencies.

Runner said the intent of the measure is to make the provisions "prospective," meaning only those coming out of prison would be covered. That could limit any possible mass migration because registered sex offenders not on parole or in prison at the time the law goes into effect would not face the restrictions.

But Jeff Stein, a criminal defense attorney in San Luis Obispo, said the proposition language is vague and he expects some local law enforcement agencies to try to enforce the residency restrictions retroactively.

Ultimately, a court may have to decide the intent because legal challenges are expected, said Stein, chairman of the legislative committee of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which
opposes Prop. 83.

If the proposition passes, California would become the 26th state to enact a version of Jessica's Law, named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was murdered last year by a convicted sex offender.

The measure is supported by Gov. Schwarzenegger and his Democratic challenger, Phil Angelides, as well as both candidates for attorney general and a variety of police, sheriff and prosecutor associations. 

"It's going to make some important changes that we've been looking for in sex crimes," Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan said.

Even Florez and Arambula plan to vote for the proposition, saying their concerns about the residency restrictions are outweighed by the need for tougher sentencing laws and better monitoring.

Opponents, including a coalition of rape crisis centers, call the measure misguided. 

"Proponents have their heart in the right place -- the problem is they haven't done their research," said Robert Coombs, spokesman for the California Coalition against Sexual Assault, which represents 84 rape crisis centers and sexual assault prevention programs across the state. 

The residency restriction won't do much good because most sex crimes are committed by "someone a child knows, loves or trusts" -- not strangers, he said.

Iowa passed a residency restriction law in 2002 that has been criticized by the Iowa County Attorneys Association. The law caused some offenders to become homeless and in some cases "register false addresses or to simply disappear," the association said in a memo earlier this year.

In California, Coombs worries that the cost for the GPS systems -- estimated to total "tens of millions of dollars annually" -- could be passed down to local governments, which might not be able to afford it. The measure enacts court and parole fees to pay for some of the monitoring. But it does not say who is responsible for any shortfall.

Runner said he will introduce legislation to get the state to pick up the tab. 

"We believe [it] is a manageable cost dealing with the safety of the public and also the peace of mind of the public," he said. 

If the initiative passes, the state already will be on the hook for an extra $200 million a year within 10 years for new prison, parole and mental health costs, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Garrick Byers, who works in the Fresno County Public Defenders Office, said Prop. 83 might prove counterproductive. The residency restrictions, for instance, might force some offenders to move away from support networks of friends and family members, he said.

"It can disrupt what we want them to do," said Byers, emphasizing that he was speaking for himself, not the office. "We want them to try to live law-abiding lives. If we drive them to the fringes they will not be doing what we want them to do."

More information

Major provisions of Proposition 83

Prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school or park.
Requires lifetime monitoring of felony registered sex offenders through the use of Global Positioning System devices.
Increases penalties and extends parole for a variety of sex offenses.
Increases the number of sex offenders who would be sent to
state hospitals after prison.

( Bills signed into law this year include some of the same tougher penalty provisions that are in Prop. 83.)

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