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Proposition 83 Seeks to Get Tough on Sex Offenders

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Aired 4/19/09

There’s one initiative on the November ballot that enjoys broad support throughout California: Prop 83. The measure, also know as Jessica’s Law, would increase penalties for sex offenders. Designers of Prop 83 say it could reduce the number of children who are victimized by sexual predators. But some in the mental health community aren’t so sure. KPBS Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

Politicians of all stripes have jumped on the Prop 83 bandwagon. On a recent weekday morning in Princess Del Cerro Park, a number of local officials lined a stage. 

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders offers his full endorsement of Prop 83.

Sanders: It’s vital that this proposition become law on November 7th. Not only will it keep a tighter reign on felony sex offenders, and thus help better protect the public, but it will also give law enforcement and the courts the additional tools needed to do that. 

A trim man with long hair and a mustache stands in the background. His name is Mark Lunsford. He’s been traveling the state to drum up support for Prop 83. The measure, also known as Jessica’s law, is named after his daughter. Last year, nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford was kidnapped from her Florida home. She was later found murdered. Police say a convicted sex offender confessed to the crime. Lunsford says the system failed.

Lunsford: Because there was a child molester, a convicted child molester living across the street from me, and I had no idea. The system failed because he was registered at one address, but lived somewhere else. The system failed because he worked at the school where my daughter went to school. If this would have place 20 years ago, there’d be a lot kids still here today, and my daughter would be one of them.

Lunsford says Jessica’s Law would crack down on sexual predators. It would give offenders a minimum prison sentence of 15 years to life. Once they’re out of prison, offenders couldn’t live within 2,000 feet of any school or park. And it would require them to wear an electronic monitoring device for life.

Lunsford: I want their lives to be completely miserable. And we do that by putting them in prison and not letting them back out. We do that by saying, hey, you don’t need to live next to this park, okay. You don't have any kids, you've got no business here.

It’s hard to argue with the idea of getting tough on sexual predators. After all, having a child abducted and sexually abused is a parent’s worst nightmare.

Fox: Although the facts are that we know that 90 percent of those that are molested know their perpetrators, and that the majority of perpetrations happen through a family member or a friend.

Dr. Eric Fox is a local treatment provider and member of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending. He has a number of objections to Prop 83. Fox says the measure’s restrictions on where offenders could live, would basically force them to move to rural areas. Fox says that would make it tougher for law enforcement. And he doesn’t think lifetime electronic monitoring of all sex offenders makes sense.

Fox: I believe it really dilutes who we really want to be careful and cautious about. It will not make any distinctions between the different risk levels that we clearly know, based on, has somebody been out of prison and their last offense’s been 40 years ago, or somebody who may be higher risk who has multiple victims in very recent history.

What’s more, Fox says the costs of monitoring more than 63,000 registered sex offenders in California would be enormous.

Fox: The estimates are that that will cost about $200 million within ten years and then grow substantially from there. And I think there are just other ways that we can identify those that are higher risk, and protect our communities at a lower cost.

But San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis disagrees. 

Dumanis: Well, I for one want to put my money in saving victims, as opposed to rehabilitation. And I think as we see the technology get better and better, it’s advancing as we speak, it’s going to get less and less expensive. And as we keep putting more and more people in custody because they’ve done this, we won’t be required to place the monitor on them, and therefore it will be less and less expensive in the long run.

State officials say arrests for sex crimes against children have declined in California. One study reveals between 1993 and 2003, there was a 79 percent drop in sexual assaults nationwide against children aged 12 to 17.

But cases like Jon-Benet Ramsey and Jessica Lunsford capture the public’s attention. And measures like Jessica’s Law become popular. Mark Lunsford says since his daughter was murdered, several states have passed Jessica’s Laws. Lunsford says the fight for Prop 83 is his way of honoring Jessica.

Lunsford:  I always remember her tugging on me and telling me to be nice. "Daddy, be nice." I could’ve done a lot of things when my daughter was murdered. But the only thing I could remember was her telling me to be nice. So this is the way I’ll do it, and this is the way we’ll fight back.

It looks like Jessica’s Law will sail to victory next Tuesday. An August Field Poll reveals three out of four voters support the measure. Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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