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Wishful lawmaking

The problematic 'Jessica's Law' is yet another symptom of the legislative dysfunction peculiar to California.

November 28, 2007

We hate to say we told you so. But we told you so. A key portion of the "Jessica's Law" ballot measure that an astounding 70% of California voters backed a year ago may never be put into effect. Times staff writer Michael Rothfeld reported Tuesday that state and local officials are each expecting the other to foot the very big bill to monitor global positioning satellite data to track thousands of released sex offenders. Forever.

Other details no one seems to have thought about much when sending Proposition 83 to last November's ballot include how to penalize released offenders who cut the GPS signaling devices from their ankles; no such penalties were mandated by the initiative. Or how to train police and sheriff's deputies to track the movements of offenders through their jurisdictions, in addition to their regular public safety tasks.

The tough-on-crime lobby made the initiative sound so simple: Do you want to protect California's children from 65,000 sex offenders or don't you? Of course you do. So it appealed directly to the emotions of people who revile those who rape and sexually abuse children: Increase the offenders' sentences. After their time is served, restrict where they can live. And track their movements for life by using the power of new technologies.

Fear of monsters and faith in technology. The combination is powerful enough to defeat reason -- and to create ballot measures that promise magical results while delivering only magical thinking. California is prone to that kind of ballot-box daydreaming.

Initiatives would be unnecessary if the Legislature worked better. Had Jessica's Law been restricted to a bill, the Legislature could have identified the practical problems and could have corrected any flaws with follow-up legislation. But the Legislature is a mess, and legislators are unmotivated to fix it. Lawmakers blew a chance to change the way their districts are drawn, leaving the Democratic majority with power to block Republican bills and the Republican minority with just enough clout to block a budget. The job of improving the system falls to the voters, which means action -- perhaps a redistricting plan -- in the form of an initiative.

Here we go again. More ballot measures. More magical thinking. At this rate, it will take an eternity before California breaks the cycle of dysfunction. Perhaps by then, we will have figured out how to enforce our new law to track sex offenders.

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