By Marisa Lagos
Few political issues are as difficult to tackle as laws dealing with California's ever-growing number of convicted sex offenders.
- It's not really difficult, if you obey the Constitution like those in office swore to do, but when politics gets in the way, then nothing gets done. They don't listen to the facts or experts, but only what the uninformed public has been taught to swallow for years, and the sound bites (mentioned below) to further their own careers and to "look tough" on crime.
For years, experts on the issue have complained that state laws were determined more by sound-bite politics than policies that improve public safety and protect children. Elected leaders, wary of accusations that they were being soft on sexual predators, have historically stayed clear of reforming such laws, except to make them harsher.
But this week, Sacramento lawmakers will take up a measure that has been greatly revised since its introduction earlier this year to include provisions such as ongoing treatment for sex offenders and sentences tailored to the severity of a crime.
Backers say the changes to AB1844 would focus the state's limited resources on the worst child molesters and will make great strides toward fixing how California deals with people found guilty of sex crimes - even if, at first glance, some of its provisions appear to ease restrictions for some convicted criminals. Perhaps just as unusual - the revised bill is the result of a rare bipartisan collaboration.
The proposal is called Chelsea's Law, after a San Diego teen killed by a registered sex offender in February. Like many legislative responses to horrific crimes against children, it began as a punitive measure that would have increased the sentences and parole terms given to child molesters.
- We need to stop the d--- practice of naming laws after human beings! They know that nobody would turn down a law named after some child. This practice needs to stop.
The changes made last month include tailoring those sentencing and parole requirements to specific crimes, instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach. It would match treatment approaches to ongoing assessments of offenders, and it would use polygraph tests for parolees.
- Okay, if this is all true, then why do we need more laws?
The measure still doesn't tackle what many experts consider one of the biggest failures of current sex offender law: restrictions on how close convicted sex offenders can live to places like parks and schools. That restriction has forced thousands of parolees into homelessness, which critics say actually hurts public safety because the offenders become harder to track.
However, the newly proposed changes do conform with many of the other recommendations that the state's own experts - the California Sex Offender Management Board - have made for years.
"The bill, as introduced, was trying to get at some solutions to pretty complex problems, and as it went through the process it got better and better," said Robert Coombs, a victim's rights advocate who chairs the board. The bill still includes harsher sentences for violent sex crimes against children, lifetime sentences for the most horrific offenses and lifetime parole for others - "tough on crime" approaches that are easy to sell to both lawmakers and voters.
- Like I said, if this is true, why are more draconian laws needed? Doesn't the existing laws already do this?
"There are still some elements of just straight-up sentencing enhancements there, but for the most part it is stepping away from a just over-generalized approach and starting to take a look at what we know works instead of what we feel works," Coombs said.
The deal worked out between Republican Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of San Diego and San Francisco Democratic Sen. Mark Leno, chairman of the public safety committee, represents a marked departure from past efforts to tighten those laws.
- And like always, he's running for state senate, so of course he's going to bust out the sex offender laws, and to name a law after a child, it helps him get elected.
In 2006, for example, Republican sponsors of a bill known as Jessica's Law went straight to the ballot after the measure was killed in the Assembly Public Safety committee, which Leno then chaired.
That measure included the restriction on convicted sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks. Leno was vilified for his opposition, but as an April Chronicle story noted, the residency rules in Jessica's Law are now under attack by an increasing number of state officials, law enforcement experts and some victims' advocates for forcing sex offenders into homelessness.
That problem is particularly acute in dense, urban areas such as San Francisco, where 84 percent of paroled sex offenders are transient.
Studies have shown there is no connection between where a person lives and whether they will commit another crime, and that instability - such as homelessness - can actually make a sex offender more likely to reoffend. Other states - including Iowa and Georgia - have recently scaled back or eliminated similar residency restrictions. As part of their agreement, Fletcher pledged to revisit the residency issue with Leno next year. He hasn't promised to support a potential bill or ballot measure, "but I am committed to working with him, because there's a fair conversation to be had about what's in the best interest of public safety," Fletcher said.
For Leno, one of the biggest issues was reining in the cost of longer parole and prison sentences.
In order to offset the anticipated increase in inmates, Fletcher agreed to raise the prison threshold for those convicted of an unrelated crime: repeat offenders that commit petty theft. The change means more thieves will stay in county jails instead of state prison.
Even with that change, it's not entirely clear what Chelsea's Law will cost; an updated analysis is expected to be released within the next week. The original bill was estimated to increase state costs by tens to hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two decades.
However, both Leno and Fletcher argue that portions of Chelsea's Law could ultimately save the state money while better protecting children. That's because the state will be required to closely monitor a parolee's risk of reoffending, and to tailor treatment based on those risks - likely resulting in fewer victims, less recidivism and lower prison costs.
- Or so they'd have you believe!
This containment model has been proved to work in other states, they said.
Chelsea's Law is not without some opposition: Defense attorneys and the ACLU have concerns about the longer prison sentences and the lack of treatment when offenders are in prison. Coombs also said it remains to be seen how well state officials implement the bill. But, he added, Chelsea's Law is a step in the right direction after Jessica's Law, which he considers a failure.
"We're left to pick up the pieces after someone introduces an initiative that is not well thought out, doesn't address a well-realized problem and is based more on bumper sticker politics," he said. "This is probably one of the bigger steps."