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Assembly Vote Extends Megan's Law

Called back into special session, the legislators unanimously OK public access to information on sex offenders. Davis has vowed to sign the bill.

September 30, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Called back to finish what they failed to accomplish during the regular session two weeks ago, the Assembly on Monday extended Megan's Law, which gives Californians access to information about convicted sex offenders.

The same bill that died Sept. 13 in the final hours of the legislative session for lack of three Republican votes cleared the Assembly 78 to 0. Without the Assembly's approval, the law would have expired in January.

The Senate already approved the bill, so it goes next to Gov. Gray Davis, who has said he would sign it "as soon as it reaches my desk."

The bill, AB 1313, would preserve until 2007 the public's right to use the telephone or police station computers to tap into the state's database that lists more than 80,000 people convicted of sex crimes. By allowing colleges to disseminate information about sex offenders living and working on campus, the bill also preserves $5.1 million in federal money for California.

The Assembly came together in a rare show of unity, but the partisan politics that recently had killed the bill resurfaced Monday. Democrats criticized Republicans for failing to pass the bill two weeks ago because of a political grudge. Republicans accused Democrats of hindering public access by failing to agree to put the sex-offender data on the Internet, as most other states do.

Bill author Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford) summed up the debate: "We all look bad here, today, that it took two weeks to get our house in order to pass a basic extension of Megan's Law."

The Assembly was not scheduled to return to Sacramento until Jan. 5. Monday's reconvening -- only the third such in more than a decade -- came after law enforcement groups and Davis beseeched legislative leaders to not let the 7-year-old law expire.

Parra's bill died when 27 Republicans refused to vote for it. They said their refusal was to get back at Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) for failing to deliver on promises he made to win enough Republican votes to pass the state budget in July.

The millions of extra dollars for rural law enforcement, rural airport security and other programs that Republicans had sought in exchange for budget votes were rejected by state Senate Leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), who said he had made no such deal with Republicans.

In a 2 1/2-hour debate Monday, with more than 30 lawmakers speaking, Republicans said they would now support Parra's bill. But they called on Democrats to also consider changes that would put the database on the Internet and list the home address of offenders.

The database now available to the public locates registered sex offenders only by ZIP Code. To tap into it, Californians can visit a sheriff's or police station or call (900) 448-3000 and pay $10 to check on two people whose names and other identifying information they know.

Several bills with similar Internet and address provisions stalled in the Assembly Public Safety Committee and the Senate earlier this year because of opposition from Democrats concerned about possible vigilantism.

"What an embarrassment that in 39 other states it's available on the Internet, but not in California," said Assemblyman John Benoit (R-Palm Desert). "Why can't these issues get resolved here, today?"

Democrats agreed to consider the changes in the first meeting of the Assembly Public Safety Committee in January.

"We at least got 50% of something rather than 100% of nothing," said Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City) shortly before the body adjourned.

Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) said he would have preferred that the Assembly Public Safety Committee take its time considering changes to Megan's Law. He said that a large portion of the information in the database is wrong or outdated, because thousands of sex offenders fail to register each year as required.

The publication on the Internet of incorrect addresses could draw public shame or outcry to innocent people, he said, or the system could be vulnerable to hackers.

"Unless the system is perfect, there could be a lot of inadvertent harm to people who don't have anything to do with sex offenders," Koretz said.

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