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Curbs for Sex Felons Sought

S.B. County, expecting increased state penalties for molesters, wants even tougher local ones.

April 19, 2006|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

A controversial proposal to keep released sex offenders in California from living in many neighborhoods won't appear on a statewide ballot for seven months. But that's not stopping San Bernardino County officials from getting ready.

In a move seen by critics as over the top, Supervisor Gary Ovitt announced Tuesday that county officials would begin drafting an ordinance to toughen the proposal long before it could become law.

The proposed Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act, also known as Jessica's Law, marks the first time state voters will consider how officials handle released sex offenders.

The ballot initiative, versions of which have stalled in the Legislature, would make such parolees wear tracking devices for the rest of their lives and increase prison sentences for many sex-related crimes. Under its provisions, a molester whose victim is younger than 14 would spend at least 15 years in prison.

It would also bar convicted sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park and allow local governments to add additional prohibited sites, such as child-care centers. It is this provision San Bernardino County officials plan to use for their ordinance.

"I don't really care [where sex offenders find a place to live] as long as they're not near children who are vulnerable," said Ovitt, one of two board members serving as state co-chairmen for the Jessica's Law campaign.

Critics of the statewide proposal dismissed the county's plan as succumbing to hysteria about sex crimes against children.

They say Jessica's Law ignores the fact that most molesters know their victims, so barring them from public sites would do little to prevent abuse.

And they point to Iowa, where prosecutors are trying to repeal a similar residency ban. One unintended result of the Iowa law was that some sex offenders stopped reporting where they lived.

"It's like we're having a national contest to see which jurisdiction can come up with the harshest penalties," said Niki Delson of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending, a group that includes treatment providers and parole officers and which opposes Jessica's Law.

"I don't think legislators or supervisors realize this is not going to do anything.... They, along with the public, are caught up in this frenzy," Delson said.

Ovitt said the ordinance was needed in part because of San Bernardino County's size. Within its 20,000 square miles, there could be remote child care centers or preschools, far from schools and parks specifically protected by Jessica's Law, that would warrant a 2,000-foot restriction but not be covered by the law, he said.

The supervisor has asked district attorney and sheriff's officials, local legislators and the county's administrative lawyers to help create a draft version. Board Chairman Bill Postmus, another state campaign co-chair for Jessica's Law, is also a task force member.

Ovitt was unsure whether the board could pass an ordinance tied to a proposed law, but would like a draft prepared by the November election in case Jessica's Law is approved.

If the effort fails, Ovitt said, the group's research could be used to draw up the county's own restrictions for where convicted sexual offenders cannot live.

UC Riverside professor Shaun Bowler, who teaches political science, called the supervisors' move unusual. "Maybe they want to show they're tough on crime," he said. "These are horrible crimes, so they're easy to get in front of politically."

Jessica's Law, named for a 9-year-old Florida girl raped and murdered by a registered sex offender, is backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and groups representing the state's sheriffs, police chiefs and sexual assault investigators.

Assemblywoman Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster), one of the proposal's sponsors, cheered San Bernardino County's efforts.

"We believe in local control, and that's what this is," she said. "They're stepping up as local leaders."

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