By Michael Gardner
Next stop will be Senate committee that shies away from stiffer sentences
The state Assembly on Thursday unanimously approved Chelsea’s Law in an effort to keep convicted child molesters behind bars longer.
The 65-0 vote moves the bill to the Senate, where its biggest hurdle lies ahead at its first stop: the Public Safety Committee.
The committee has a general policy, although at times it has been sidestepped, to shelve measures that could aggravate prison overcrowding and further drain the already over-tapped state budget. It also has a reputation for resisting more prison time, preferring alternative approaches that stress rehabilitation.
Chelsea’s Law was inspired by Poway teenager Chelsea King, who was raped and murdered in February. Convicted sex offender John Albert Gardner III later pleaded guilty to murdering Chelsea and Amber Dubois, a 14-year-old Escondido girl. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Carried by Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (Contact), R-San Diego, Assembly Bill 1844 would require a life sentence without parole in some sex crimes against children. It would also double certain other sentences, extend the time spent on parole for some offenses and prevent predators on parole from entering parks where children are present without prior permission of authorities.
Assemblywoman Lori Saldana (Contact), D-San Diego, abstained from the vote. She choked up as she spoke, noting that a member of her family had been raped. She recalled how some of her legislative efforts to correct flaws stalled in the Public Safety Committee. In an interview, she said that “as a neutral party” she could better help reshape the measure so it can overcome the anticipated resistance in that committee.
Saldana also said she wants to review possible amendments, such as better-defining parks to make sure a ban is workable.
Said Fletcher, “I am open to refinements to make this a better bill. We want a good piece of public policy that will better protect children ... The commitment is the same: to protect children from violent sexual offenders.”
The Assembly vote was the second related victory for Fletcher this week. On Wednesday, the Assembly unanimously approved his legislation that prohibits the shredding of a parolee’s “field file,” which provides extensive information about the ex-convict’s behavior and movements, as well as how parole agents responded to possible violations of conditions.
Parts of Gardner’s file were shredded, under state policy at the time. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger then stepped in, ordering the prisons agency to stop the practice. But Fletcher and others want the ban put into law. so that it cannot be arbitrarily changed without legislative approval.
State Inspector General David Shaw (Contact), as part of his stinging condemnation this week of how the state handled Gardner’s parole, said in his report that some of his investigation was stymied by destroyed records.
“We weren’t able to go back and look forensically” at the records, Shaw said in a subsequent interview. He did not endorse the legislation, having not ready it. But, Shaw added, “I would support a recommendation that they not be destroyed.”
Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (Contact), D-South Gate, a co-author of Assembly Bill 2295, said, the destruction of the files “impeded the work of law enforcement and jeopardizes the safety of families.”
Sen. Mark Leno (Contact), a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Public Safety Committee, declined to comment, saying he didn’t want to prejudice the looming hearing.
There remains a small core of opponents who are expected to urge the Senate to block the measure.
In earlier letters submitted to the Assembly Public Safety Committee, they addressed some of the cost issues as well as other concerns.
Francisco Lobaco, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that the measure’s one-strike provision is a penalty normally reserved for murderers. He called that sentence “disproportionate and excessive.”
Banning parolees from parks is “irrational” given that it “will submit thousands of individuals to additional criminal penalties without improving public safety,” Lobaco wrote in his letter dated April 16.
A day earlier, Liberty Sanchez, a lobbyist for public defenders, wrote “locking up every child molester for life without the possibility of parole will not create a safer California. To the contrary, we believe that this measure will tie up already scarce resources thereby preventing law enforcement from focusing on those individuals who do pose a risk to society.”
Sanchez chastened Fletcher for treating all sex offenders the same by introducing blanket penalties. “Sex offenders need to be treated, assessed and where appropriate re-integrated into the community so that they will not re-offend,” states her letter.
Fletcher has already accepted one change, exempting minors from the “one strike” provision that mandates a life sentence without the possibility of parole for those convicted of serious sex offenses against children.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled that a teenager, whose crime does not involve murder, must have “a meaningful opportunity to obtain release.” Locking up those under 18 for life for non-murders violates the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, the court ruled.
Costs remain unclear, but generally the full impact will not be felt for several years.
The state’s prison agency estimates that the per-year price would gradually climb as more predators are kept behind bars longer and are subject to stricter parole conditions. Its projects costs of $54 million a year by 2030.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst issued vague estimates, citing the unavailability of precise sentencing and parole data.
The Legislative Analyst report said the measure “would likely result in increased criminal justice system costs” that range from tens of millions initially to hundreds of millions of dollars longer-term as more prison beds are needed.