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Jessica's Law triggers mess for state

Betty Schneider, Guest Columnist LA Daily News,
12 September 2006 

OVER 70 percent of California voters backed Proposition 83,
"Jessica's Law." And, as in Iowa before it, the legislation has
engulfed the state in a legal morass. Does it apply retroactively? Was it framed honestly and precisely? Is it even constitutional?

It's unlikely that most busy citizens who punched "yes" had closely explored Proposition 83's paradoxes and knots. They only saw its bare-bones title, "Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act" - a red flag raised in the name of kids - and immediately saluted.

But voters had little way of knowing that Proposition 83's authors, state Sen. George Runner and his wife, Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, had fleshed it out with a patchwork design that might be termed "Frankenstein's Measure."

And so on the morning of Nov. 8 - immediately after Election Day - U.S. District Judge Susan Illston placed a restraining order on the measure, deeming it "punitive by design and effect." Illston found that Proposition 83 was likely unconstitutional, as its requirement that sex offenders live at least 2,000 feet away from parks and schools apparently covered even those who committed their crimes before the initiative was on the books.

Sen. Runner insisted the law was not retroactive - inapplicable to 90,000 ex-convicts. Yet his campaign message was "kids shouldn't have to walk by a sex offender's home on the way to school." To which Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, replied, "So now they're saying it's only the sex offenders released in the future we have to worry about, not those among us ... If I were a voter who supported this, I'd be angry and confused."

On Nov. 15, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer urged the lawsuit's dismissal because the measure contained no punishment or imprisonment for violation of its residency restrictions. But if that's the case, then just what does the initiative actually do?

Back in court on Nov. 27, Lockyer then re-reinterpreted Proposition 83: Offenders already living in prohibited zones can stay, but must comply with the law if they move. Another judge, Jeffrey White, said he was feeling "a little bit ambushed" due to this "completely new and different position," and extended the injunction until Feb. 23.

So the Runners have run a U-turn, while Lockyer has produced a gridlock. And by the Feb. 23 hearing, Jerry Brown will have taken over as attorney general. Will he reinterpret the triple-interpretation?

Further, two more legal challenges have since been filed against Proposition 83. One also disputes the measure's distance restriction, while another challenges its mandatory GPS monitoring for released sex offenders. It's been estimated that all the loose ends in Proposition 83's tangled tapestry won't be tied up for three years - if even then.

Meanwhile, let's briefly inspect the document upon which this brouhaha is based. Not surprisingly, it begins with a lie.

Or to be kinder, call it cherry-picking - statistical fudging to
push a falsity. Section 2(b) of Proposition 83 states in part: "Sex offenders have very high recidivism rates. According to a 1998 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, sex offenders are the least likely to be cured and the most likely to re-offend."

In fact, that very study of 272,111 ex-convicts finds a 5.3 percent re-arrest rate for child victimizers during their first three years after release - compared with 68 percent recidivism for other criminals. Only murderers come in lower at 1.2 percent.

As for recovery assessments, Dr. Karl Hanson's multistudy analysis of 31,000 sex offenders found therapy effective for 41 percent of the subjects. Three other large treatment studies ranged from 31 percent to 59 percent decreases in recidivism. This is "incurable"?

Proposition 83 also extends to all sex offenders - regardless of the victims' ages. The law can thus apply even to "Romeo and Juliet" cases of consenting teens who yielded to their roaring hormones, or to exhibitionists, peeping Toms, and other relatively harmless types.

We must move on more sensibly toward resolving the public-health issue of childhood sexual abuse. That means ensuring consistent, intensive, and well-regulated treatment programs for offenders - the only path to helping many kids avoid trauma and spurring their journey to productive futures. It's a far better route than our rocky Proposition 83.

Betty Schneider is a member of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending, as well as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

Contact her through her Web site,  < >.

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