SACRAMENTO — A national movement to restrict where released sex offenders may live has swept into California this election season, with voters set to approve or reject a far-reaching crackdown on society's most loathed ex-convicts.
Proposition 83 on the Nov. 7 ballot -- dubbed Jessica's Law by proponents -- would lengthen prison and parole terms for the most violent sex offenders and make possession of child pornography a felony.
In addition, its most controversial provision would ban all released sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park. Local governments could declare additional locations off-limits, and sex offenders would be monitored for life with an electronic tracking device.
If passed, the measure would cost the state at least $200 million annually within a decade, according to the nonpartisan legislative analyst, largely because of the satellite tracking and police needed to enforce it.
The initiative's sponsors, a husband-and-wife team of Republican legislators, say the measure is worth the expense. Although there are no studies showing that residency limits reduce the number of sex crimes, they say common sense and public anxiety make it a smart idea to ban former offenders from areas where children gather.
"When a child walks to school, he or she shouldn't have to walk by a molester's home to get there," said state Sen. George Runner of Lancaster, lead proponent of the proposition with his wife, Sharon, an assemblywoman.
Foes say the measure is based on hysteria, not facts, and ignores a central truth: that nine out of 10 sex offenders are not monsters lurking in the bushes but instead prey on people they know. Opponents, including a coalition representing victims, also note that the law would not forbid loitering near schools and say it could put children in greater danger by giving parents a false sense of security.
Citing the experience of other states, some scholars say the residency rule would banish the former convicts from urban settings that offer the services, jobs and family connections that help them remain law-abiding -- and dump them on rural communities ill-equipped to supervise them. In Iowa, prosecutors who once backed such a law said the residency limit had backfired, and they now want it repealed.
According to maps prepared by the state Senate, the initiative would bar sex offenders from living in nearly all of San Francisco and much of urban Los Angeles, while they would be allowed to live in many less densely populated suburbs around the state.
State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), whose farm-belt district in the Central Valley is one area where sex offenders could legally live, said the measure would legalize "predator dumping." The Bakersfield Californian newspaper agreed, and editorialized against it under the headline "Our children deserve same rights as city kids."
Such worries have prompted one supporter, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, to lose much of his zeal for the measure. Although he supports the tougher sentencing it offers, Cooley says, "the potential unintended consequences -- like burdening our rural areas -- have not been well thought out."
"It makes you wonder if it's a false promise based upon a false premise," Cooley said.
Many other officeholders have expressed no such qualms. The initiative has been endorsed by GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed the ballot argument in favor of it, and his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides. It is also endorsed by Crime Victims United and statewide associations of police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors.
An August Field Poll showed the proposition with a lead of nearly 7 to 1, a reflection, analysts say, of the public's deep unease about a category of offenders often linked to heinous, headline-grabbing crimes.
It was just such a crime that gave birth to the initiative. In February 2005, a 9-year-old Florida girl, Jessica Lunsford, was kidnapped and killed, allegedly by a convicted sex offender who worked as a laborer at her school.
Within three months of the killing, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had signed legislation imposing 25-years-to-life sentences on those convicted of lewd and lascivious molestation of children under 12. The Jessica Lunsford Law also required lifetime electronic tracking of released sex offenders, and made schools off-limits.
The nationwide push to exile sex offenders encompasses at least 18 states and hundreds of municipalities. In South Dakota, a law bars sex offenders from living within 500 feet of schools and imposes a prison term of up to two years for violations. In Georgia, offenders are also barred from living near bus stops and churches.
Private companies, meanwhile, are beginning to capitalize on public revulsion, with one Houston developer building "sex-offender-free subdivisions." Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly has nurtured the movement, advocating passage of measures like Proposition 83 by every state.