News

Jessica’s Law’s no-live zone is bone of political contention

A November initiative to toughen penalties and place new restrictions on
where past sex offenders can live essentially would make the city of San
Francisco a sexual-predator-free zone, according to maps produced by the
Senate Office of Research.

If passed, the measure would prohibit convicted sex offenders from living
within 2000 feet of any school or park where children play.

In San Francisco, one of the nation’s most densely populated cities, that
leaves only a few square blocks as inhabitable for registered sex offenders.
The largest areas that would remain open to past predators would be the
airport region, downtown’s industrial zones and cemetery-dense Colma–none of
which contain much, if any, residential housing.

“We’re really clear: It is going to be harder to find a place to live,
particularly in the most dense areas, of which San Francisco would be the
most,” said Sen. George Runner, R-Antelope Valley, who along with his wife,
Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster, spearheaded the campaign to put
the measure on the ballot.

Runner, while challenging the specifics of the Senate map, says that there
will be difficulties in predator placement, but they are worth the potential
benefit.

“We firmly believe that a child molester should not be allowed to live
across the street from the school,” he says.

The so-called residency restriction is one of the most tussled-over
provisions of Jessica’s Law, which has sparked a fierce and partisan battle
in the Capitol since last summer.

Named for Jessica Lunsford, a nine-year-old Florida girl who, authorities
say, was abducted and killed in 2005 by a convicted sex offender, the
initiative, Proposition 83, mandates longer sentences for sexual predators
and also requires them to wear high-tech GPS tracking devices for life.
Privately, Democrats, and even many Republican supporters, admit that the
vaguely worded section on the 2000-foot no-go zone is likely to end up
tangled in court disputes as local authorities argue over how to best
implement the new lines.

Proposition 83 specifies that any school, “public or private,” qualifies for
the barrier. But it is unclear whether that includes non-children schools
such as culinary academies and colleges. There is also no specific
definition of parks “where children regularly congregate,” or whether the
2000 feet should be measured from the center or perimeter of the park or
school.

“We left it vague like that because we felt that there needed to be some
flexibility in placement,” says Runner.

A similar Georgia law imposing a 1000-foot barrier from bus stops is tied up
in court. And in Iowa, the county-attorney association that once backed a
similar barrier has done an about-face, writing “there is no correlation
between residency restrictions and reducing sex offense” in a scathing
statement earlier this year.

But, despite their reservations, few California Democrats have voiced public
objections to the tough-on-crime initiative–though several have tried to
tinker with legislation behind-the-scenes.

History suggests the measure will be a political juggernaut.

Since Californians reauthorized the death penalty in 1978, the state’s
voters have approved all but one of the nearly 20 tough-on-crime measures
put before them.

“It will pass overwhelmingly on the November ballot,” says GOP consultant
Dave Gilliard, who is a strategist for the Jessica’s Law campaign. “It is a
very powerful issue across party lines. I suspect, unless they are in the
safest of safe districts, Democrats will not come out against it.”

No statewide Democratic candidate has opposed the initiative. Jerry Brown,
the Democratic nominee for attorney general, is openly backing the measure.
“He’s for it,” said Brown spokesman Ace Smith.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a sponsor, along with the Runners, of
Jessica’s Law and his campaign staff have dogged Democratic challenger Phil
Angelides to take a stand on the measure.

One of the few, and according to Runner the first, legislative Democrats to
openly oppose the measure is Assemblyman Mark Leno, who represents San
Francisco.

Leno, who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, says the initiative
is all about politics, not policy.

“It is a sad irony that the very people who claim to be protecting our
children are using our children as a political weapon,” he said.

Leno criticizes several provisions of the proposed law, though he holds most
of his fire for the 2000-foot barrier–even if it would remove the majority
of sex criminals from his district. He calls the line arbitrary, ineffective
and unenforceable.

“What makes more sense are trespassing restrictions, because what we’ve
learned is it doesn’t matter where you live, it matters where you are, where
you hang out,” says Leno, who is backing alternate measures moving through
the Legislature without the 2000-foot line.

There are also concerns–raised by Democrats–about whether the law would
force sex offenders already living within the 2000-foot lines to move. The
provision reads, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, it is unlawful
for any person for whom registration is required


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