Bruce Maiman

Supreme Court was correct to throw out Jessica’s Law

Park rangers Chris Dameron, right, and A.J. Bennett run a check on a man living on the American River Parkway in 2012 who turned out to be a convicted sex offender. Those who successfully sued over Jessica’s Law argued that residency restrictions forced sex offenders to live on the street.
Park rangers Chris Dameron, right, and A.J. Bennett run a check on a man living on the American River Parkway in 2012 who turned out to be a convicted sex offender. Those who successfully sued over Jessica’s Law argued that residency restrictions forced sex offenders to live on the street. Sacramento Bee file

How do you feel about zero tolerance? It’s often a simple way to deal with matters when we don’t want to be bothered, but it can cause all sorts of problems.

Some of our laws are written in much the same way – like Jessica’s Law, the 2006 ballot initiative targeted at sex offenders that passed with 70 percent of the vote. Finally, California officials have done something about it.

Last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it would stop enforcing a key provision of Jessica’s Law that prohibits all registered sex offenders from living near schools or parks. The decision came in response to the California Supreme Court declaring the law unconstitutional after parolees in San Diego argued that the restrictions made it difficult for them to find places to live and receive health care, rehabilitation services and psychological counseling.

Tough-on-crime advocates slammed the department’s move, calling it “outrageous,” “against voters’ wishes” and “far beyond what the court required.”

Not at all. Neither the court’s ruling nor the agency’s decision means that sex offenders will start flooding into your neighborhood. Instead, the state will now assess sex offenders on a case-by-case basis, separating high-risk parolees who remain a threat to children from low-risk offenders. This was something Jessica’s Law never did.

It imposes a blanket policy of “no sex offenders, period,” regardless of circumstance. A person arrested for running naked on a football field or caught urinating in the alley on the way home is lumped in with a child molester. They aren’t the same, but the “zero tolerance” law says they are.

This is ultimately at the heart of the court’s argument. One size does not fit all.

This problem happens again and again. California voters approve a flawed, overreaching proposition, a court eventually throws it out for being unconstitutional, and then the law’s supporters complain about activist judges not listening to the will of the people.

The law’s author, former Republican state Sen. George Runner, wants local governments, not the state, to assess how big a risk an offender poses. He laments in a press release that legislation he introduced to do that was “killed by the Legislature” in 2011.

That’s not the Supreme Court’s problem. Nor is it the court’s job to cater to the will of the people. Its obligation is to fidelity for the law. In fact, a whole list of people should be standing in line to thank both the court and the Corrections Department.

Law enforcement officers should be grateful, given a report finding that in the three years after Jessica’s Law took effect, California’s population of homeless sex offenders grew 24 times larger. One might not care about the rights of offenders, but police and parole officers certainly care about knowing where these people are.

Local government officials should thank the department for sparing them the headache and expense of facing inevitable lawsuits similar to the one filed in San Diego County. Superior Court judges already facing enormous backlogs due to budget cuts can breathe easier knowing such lawsuits won’t be clogging their courtrooms.

And Runner should be thankful knowing all these things will save taxpayer dollars while government runs more efficiently.

Yes, there are rules we follow, but we all know there are exceptions, unintended consequences and extenuating circumstances. Accommodating them will require us to be less rigid in our thinking. That doesn’t mean we won’t be tough on crime, we’ll just be more effective against it.

Bruce Maiman regularly fills in as a host on KFBK radio and lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.

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