Jessica's Law flaws debated
Feb. 17, 2010
By ELISE VIEBECK
Officials at a Senate hearing yesterday questioned the effectiveness of Jessica’s Law, the 2006 ballot initiative passed to reduce recidivism among paroled sex offenders. Critics say that for all its popularity — the measure was approved by 70 percent of California voters — the law has compounded the problems it aimed to fix.
Though federal statistics show a decline in the number of sexual offenses against children over the last 10 years, most states have adopted statutes known as Jessica’s Law. California’s version, which took form as Prop. 83, overhauled the sex offender parole system, requiring lifetime electronic monitoring of parolee movement, and restricting parolees from living near schools or parks.
Despite these provisions, 70 percent to 75 percent of the state’s parolees are unsupervised at any given time, according to last month’s report by the Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB).
“Many people think that GPS is the be-all, end-all,” Secretary of Corrections Matthew Cate said yesterday. “But there are a lot of problems. It’s the nuts-and-bolts, government-101 stuff that gets missed when we have an emotional set of data.”
Cate also noted that, contrary to popular understanding, parolees’ GPS anklets do not report their location in real time. He estimated that the system costs $55 million annually.
Other components of implementation have been problematic. The parolees who do not find housing often become transient or homeless, which, noted a 2006 California Research Bureau report, creates a “false sense of safety” for the public. Even more common are impromptu housing arrangements, made when urban parolees can’t find approved places to live, and which cost an estimated $25 million every year.
For the original passage of Prop. 83, Governor Schwarzenegger, law enforcement and victims’ groups rallied around state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, who authored the initiative. Today, few are willing to stand by the law in its current form.
“What we think will be best for public safety or best for victims isn’t necessarily how it all plays out,” says Christine Ward, director of Crime Victims Action Alliance. “It might be time to look at Jessica’s Law and make a few changes.”
Runner echoed this, and alluded to the struggle by many Senate Republicans to see crime legislation through the Public Safety committee, which is often chaired by Democrats.
“We’ve authored legislation in the past that would have given local government some control over the 2,000-feet distancing restriction of sex offenders,” he told CalWatdog yesterday. “Unfortunately the Senate Public Safety Committee killed such proposals in committee.”
Experts say the cost to local governments, which are burdened with supervising parolees when the state system falters, are extensive but have not been measured.
There are no bills currently active to amend the framework; however, with Friday’s deadline for new bills approaching, legislative staff say new proposals may appear this week.
“In a time of limited public resources, we want the best public safety return for those dollars,” said one staff member working on the issue. “If that means triage, we’ll do triage.”
A “triage” approach, according to January’s SOMB report, would mean focusing state funds on those parolees that pose the greatest risk. Panelists yesterday said they would favor a “containment” model, already adopted in Colorado, Arizona and Texas, which combines parolee therapy with polygraph evaluations and community supervision.
The California Coalition against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), a state-wide coalition of rape crisis centers and prevention programs, supports containment. It was one of few groups campaigning against Jessica’s Law in 2006, saying in a position paper that the law would “waste valuable resources on sex offenders who are unlikely to re-offend.”
The panel yesterday acknowledged that, even in moving toward an “evidence-based” model, there are few metrics that could determine outright success.
Provisions of Jessica’s Law divide conservative Republicans from civil libertarians, who believe the law limits travel, association and due process rights. The state Supreme Court ruled on those questions this month, concluding that due process concerns would require evidentiary hearings, and that the other questions would be best resolved by lower courts. The ACLU, which filed an amicus brief with the court, did not return calls for comment.
In the meantime, state lawmakers of both parties admit that while they could alter the Jessica framework with a two-thirds vote, any ‘yea’ vote represents a political risk.
“How can we stop passing the [law] du jour, just to get votes for whatever we’re running for? ” Sen. Gloria Negrete-McLeod, D-Chino, asked witnesses yesterday. “We can’t do anything without hearing ‘soft on crime.'”
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