It was no surprise when Proposition 83, the so-called Jessica’s Law, passed in 2006 with better than a 2-1 majority. The issue, as stated in the ballot summary, was where convicted sex offenders should be allowed to live, no matter how long ago their offenses. The plain wish of the vast majority of voters is that these people become pariahs for life, unable to live anywhere near any potential victims.
Nobody likes sexual predators, especially violent ones, nor should they. But lawyers for some of them argue that once they’ve served their time and once corrections authorities rule they’ve been rehabilitated as well as possible, they’ve got to live somewhere. And the reality is that Proposition 83 allows them almost noplace to live in any city or town.
That’s what voters wanted, of course. No one wants a predator living nearby, and many parents have felt more comfortable since Proposition 83 passed.
As written, this law prohibits all registered sex offenders from residing within 2,000 feet of any school or park. The law also mandates far longer prison terms than before and allows the state Department of Mental Health to keep offenders in custody indefinitely after their prison terms are up, if psychiatrists determine they’re still dangerous. After release, the measure puts tracking devices on all of them for life.
No one is seriously challenging many of these provisions, which expand on the severe restrictions previously placed on violent rapists and child molesters. The challenges have come to the residential limits.
On its surface, this proposition was a no-brainer, a gut reaction against a few crimes committed by paroled offenders who were not being thoroughly monitored. Pre-existing rules even contained a tougher residential restriction than the initiative’s 2,000-foot limit for some offenders, not allowing predators judged to be high risks to live within 2,640 feet of parks and schools.
But by voting as they did, Californians said they don’t fully trust the judgment of mental health professionals; they said no one can ever be sure a onetime offender might not again act out an impulse. Previous law took essentially the same point of view, having long required released sex offenders to register with authorities even decades after their crimes.
The legal problem comes in restricting where long-ago offenders can live, even after they are judged no longer a serious risk to anyone. This spring, the state Supreme Court in a ruling on a San Diego case, written by conservative retired justice Marvin Baxter, said the restrictions are too tough. Those rules raised the rate of homelessness among the state’s 8,000-plus registered sex offenders by a factor of 24, also hindering their access to medical care and drug and alcohol dependency programs.
While the beatdown of Proposition 83 residency rules applied at first only to San Diego County, it has already been made general by a state order lifting the distance restriction on offenders whose crimes didn’t involve children.
The state high court’s decision was presaged years earlier by a federal judge in San Francisco, who said the day after the initiative passed that there was “a substantial likelihood” the law is unconstitutional, changing conditions of parole for persons convicted and released long before it passed.
That ruling came in a case where a former offender, identified only as John Doe, claimed Jessica’s Law would force him to leave a community where he lived peacefully for more than 20 years.
That’s just what Republican legislator Susan Runner, from the high desert region of Los Angeles County, wanted to do when she sponsored Proposition 83 and it’s what voters wanted, too. They simply don’t trust prior offenders to remain impulse-resistant forever, and so they want even long-ago sex offenders with solid records since their release far from any proximity to children.
The last time voters felt as strongly about an initiative was in the mid-1990s, when a huge majority passed Proposition 187 in an effort to cut off health, education and all other public services to illegal immigrants. A federal judge struck down most of that one quickly.
No one seriously expects the surveillance and sentencing aspects of Proposition 83 to suffer a similar fate. But voters can be excused if they feel frustrated by a court waiting almost nine years to strike down a much of a law they passed, one that provided peace of mind to many.