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NEWS ANALYSIS

Jessica's Law not working as intended

The number of sex offenders who are being hospitalized after leaving prison hasn't changed.

August 11, 2008|Charles Piller and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

When voters overwhelmingly approved Jessica's Law in fall 2006, many assumed it would lock away predatory child molesters and rapists who had slipped through the cracks of existing law.

But by key measures, Jessica's Law may be failing to deliver on its promise -- and in some respects producing the opposite of its intended effects.

As a Times investigation reported Sunday, the law has led far more sexual offenders to be evaluated and recommended for indefinite hospitalization after their prison terms end. But the number of commitments has barely budged.

In the 18 months after Jessica's Law took effect, only 42 of 67 defendants in civil commitment trials -- 63% -- were sent to hospitals, compared with 41 of 51 -- 80% -- before the law.

The finding is only the latest sign that the law, named for a 9-year-old rape and murder victim, is not working as intended, despite carrying costs that are expected to reach several hundred million dollars annually within a few years.

Critics have cited problems with another key provision that banned registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, in some cases ruling out entire cities.

The limits were meant to keep children safe. But the California Sex Offender Management Board suggested in a January oversight report that strict parolee residency requirements might tend to increase rather than reduce sex crimes. The panel said the number of offenders listing themselves as transient rose by 44% to nearly 2,900 in the first year after Jessica's Law passed.

"Current research concludes that suitable and stable housing for sex offenders is critical to reducing recidivism and increasing community safety," the panel said.

John La Fond, a retired law professor and author of "Preventing Sexual Violence," put it this way: "We're locking up a small number, then releasing the rest and saying 'Good luck, and you can't live anywhere.' "

State Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), who introduced Jessica's Law, said the concerns were strictly theoretical, unsupported by data showing an increase in sex crimes.

"We were prepared" for increased transience among sex offenders, he said. "That's why we require GPS."

He was referring to a provision of Jessica's Law that requires lifetime monitoring of many offenders using the global positioning system. But that part of the law has proved controversial as well, because local law enforcement agencies, which would eventually handle most of the monitoring, say they lack money for it.

"I'm not aware of any sheriff in the state doing GPS," said Jim Denney, director of the California Sheriffs Assn. "There is no local funding tied to Jessica's Law."

Jerry P. Dyer, Fresno's police chief and president of the California Police Chiefs Assn., said that most GPS monitoring of sex offenders, for now, was handled by the state.

"The concern under Jessica's Law is who has the responsibility for purchasing GPS units and monitoring offenders once the individuals are no longer on parole," he said. If it is a local responsibility, "that needs to be funded by the state."

Runner has argued that Jessica's Law, which was mandated by 70% of voters, is sound, even if it could benefit from small adjustments.

"Our job is to implement what the voters have asked us to do," he said.

To that end, Runner has sponsored Proposition 6 on the November ballot, which would move money from the state general fund to crime control, including $15 million annually for GPS monitoring by local law enforcement of gang offenders, violent offenders and sex offenders.

Both the police and sheriffs associations support the measure, but Dyer expressed doubts that the funding would prove adequate and suggested that it might be necessary "to focus on the most serious sex offenders."

The latest provision in Jessica's Law to come under question pertains to "sexually violent predators" -- a small minority of sex offenders believed to be committing crimes because of mental illness. They can be committed indefinitely to hospitals for treatment if a jury affirms the diagnosis of two psychologists or psychiatrists. A single sex crime can now lead to lifelong commitment.

The evaluations cost $31 million in the last fiscal year, including payments to contract evaluators.

Defense attorneys said the decline in the rate of hospital commitments followed new research about sex crimes -- much of it, ironically, sparked by statutes such as Jessica's Law. The studies have helped persuade some juries that sexually violent predators are far less common than previously believed.

"Five years ago sex crime recidivism was thought to be 50% or higher. Now we know it is closer to 3%, particularly for older men," said Todd Melnik, an attorney who has successfully defended several clients in such cases.

"Five years ago no one criticized the key assessment tool" used to estimate recidivism risk in sex offenders, he said. "Now people know it's about as bulletproof as Swiss cheese.

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