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Chelsea’s Law Amended, Progressing Through Legislature

Audio

Aired 7/2/10

Will Chelsea's Law help to protect society from sex offenders, or will it make the state's prisons more overcrowded? We discuss the latest changes to the proposed law, and the long-term affects it could have on California.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner and I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today we’ll examine whether Chelsea's Law, which is moving through the state legislature, will help prevent sex offenders from reoffending, if the local economy is reflecting the dismal national financial picture, and how local school districts are hanging on, in some cases barely, as their budgets shrink dramatically. The editors with me today are Ricky Young, Watchdog editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Good morning, Ricky.

RICKY YOUNG (Watchdog Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning, Gloria.

PENNER: John Warren, editor of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint. Good to see you again, John.

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Good morning, Gloria.

PENNER: And David King, editor and founder of sandiegonewsroom.com. I’m glad you’re coming back again, David.

DAVID KING (Founder/Editor, sandiegonewsroom.com): Glad to be back, Gloria.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. This week a California State Senate committee approved the proposed Chelsea's Law with some amendments. The bill has already been approved by the Assembly. The bill is named for 17-year-old Poway teenager Chelsea King, who was raped and murdered by convicted child molester John Gardner. So, Ricky, the essence of the original proposed legislation was to mandate lifetime imprisonment for the most violent sex offenders. What else does it call for now?

YOUNG: Well, it had a number of kind of tough on crime provisions. As you mentioned, a sort of one-strike thing for the worst offenders and lifetime on parole for a number of others. And the drama of it all along was would it be able to get through this particular committee that it got through this week. This committee has made a history of – or a policy of not passing legislation if it’s going to aggravate California’s terrible prison overcrowding situation. They’re at like 200% of capacity. And this week they reached a deal that lowered some of the sentences. Instead of lifetime on parole, there’s certain offenses that will only be 10 years or 20 years on parole. And then, interestingly, another question all along has been how are you going to pay when you do exacerbate prison sentences and they found a way, at least on paper, to make it pencil out which was to lessen the incidence of petty theft winding you up in prison for long periods of time.

PENNER: Yeah, I thought that one was rather interesting. I think that, if I recall, John, the idea is that if you are found guilty of petty theft, that instead of it being a felony it would be a misdemeanor and it would be a sentence of one year in county jail. Well, I mean, doesn’t that really just transfer the cost from the state prisons to the county?

WARREN: Well, on the one hand it does but the whole criminal justice system is taking a severe look at what do we do in terms of making space for more serious offenders. And that’s at the essence of this whole issue of early release that other states have and that we’re engaged in. So it would logically follow at this point that we’d have to deal with that misdemeanor factor because many of those things would be reduced beyond a time in jail to probation, if you will, or – but anything that will save money. So that part I’m not surprised at. I mean, because there’s too much public pressure right now in terms of holding major sex offenders.

PENNER: But on the other hand, David King, and you’re an attorney as well as being a journalist, a nonpartisan legislative analyst put the cost of life sentences for hundreds of perpetrators and a lifetime parole for thousands at hundreds of millions of dollars each year, including building new cells for them. Now this may not kick in for a couple of decades. I mean, have we no concern about the cost for future generations of this kind of legislation?

KING: Absolutely, we need to factor in the costs of enacting legislation like Chelsea's Law, which would be revolutionary to have a tough-on-crime law passed through the legislature. Everything else that you can name, Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, the three strikes, those are all propositions. With this bill what they’re trying to do, though, is make this revenue neutral, rather cost neutral. The felony wobbler of petty theft with a prior offense could be either charged as it is right now, as a felony, or as a misdemeanor. But typically with people who have a petty theft charge against them and are convicted, we’re putting them away in prison for two years. The savings of keeping those people locally here should open enough space to more than accommodate the additional people who would be serving life sentences. People that commit petty theft aren’t the worst of the worst criminals so they don’t need to be going away to state prison for two years. Keep them locally. You can even have them in work furlough where they continue to work and then go check into prison for – at night, so…

PENNER: Let me ask our listeners about this. You’ve heard about Chelsea's Law. It’s been a response to the tragedy that we heard from – that both the King family and from the Amber – and the parents of Amber Dubois, and we’ll talk about that a little bit more later, do you believe that having a law that would extend the sentencing of sex offenders, both their sentencing and their parole, is that the way to go? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Okay, Ricky, you wanted to respond.

YOUNG: Yeah, I was just going to mention, you know, we’ve talked about the cost and the petty criminals in this but there was another significant addition by the committee this week. One of the main criticisms of Chelsea's Law is it’s just kind of a lock ‘em up approach. And what the committee added in this week is a significant breakthrough in terms of also focusing on treatment of sex offenders and something called the containment model. Our John Wilkens at the U-T had a story, you know, early on in this case about how our probation department here in San Diego County does something called the containment model, which uses polygraph tests and very specialized treatment for sex offenders in an effort to stem recidivism and it’s fairly successful. But one of the problems they noted was that it’s not done for people on parole. Well, this bill will require that, that containment model approach, it’s called, and so a little more focus on treatment and some effort to avoid recidivism. This has not been something the Kings have been thinking would ever work but as part of the legislative compromise process, this was put in and, you know, if it does work, I guess that would also hold some costs down. But I think it’s a tribute to the compromise that goes on during legislation as opposed to, as David mentioned, if you go to the ballot box and you just force it in the way, you know, it would probably pass, which is as just a lock ‘em up bill.

PENNER: That’s an interesting aspect of it that Ricky raised. San Diego Republican Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher authored the bill, John, and he’s leading the charge for Chelsea's Law and it’s in a legislature that’s marked by its divisiveness. How has he been able to convince both sides of the aisle to cooperate on this?

WARREN: Well, I think one of the things is he’s – he has not approached this from the standpoint that I have the only solution to the problem. I mean, throughout the process, there’s discussion. He seems to be a person who is both carrying the water for the families at the same time he’s remembering he’s a part of the legislature. And I think that’s helped him tremendously. But I have a concern when I look at this and we talk about containment and other models in terms of treatment. I noted in this that we have people under the GPS system that they’re – at least some 31,000 in a backlog of alerts that have gone off that haven’t been investigated. And as I was sitting here, I was remembering it seems like once upon a time we talked about surgical castration in terms of dealing with some of these cases.

PENNER: And medical castration.

WARREN: And medical. And I’m appalled that the medical is not back on the table at this point, I mean, because – I’m sorry, chemical.

PENNER: Chemical, yes.

WARREN: The chemical castration. The surgical should be the item on the table in terms of dealing with the issue because we’re looking at cost factors that go out into the future. I don’t see anything different. We have – At intervals, we have these murders, we have these horrific events, we put another law on the books, and we add to the costs. But I saw recently a new prison that had been opened and they had these people walking around in a dormitory in jump suits and a shopping mall and TV and more comfortable than working folks. And, you know, at some point, society’s going to have to catch up with the idea that some real old-fashioned theories aren’t so bad after all.

PENNER: Of course, there is the feeling on behalf of some that castration’s not the answer because the motive and the push and the impetus to offend is in the head and not necessarily in other parts of the body.

WARREN: Well, this is true but the bottom line is that, you know, it’s been a – it seems to work effectively in other cultures and I don’t understand if we’re so concerned why we just kind of go around it in terms of dealing with it here. If we were in the kind of financial issues that we’re in then we need to deal with all of this seriously and stop kind of window dressing a scenario that can only get worse.

PENNER: And this seems like an opportune moment to have Christine, one of our listeners who has become a caller, Christine in Poway, you want to join us?

CHRISTINE (Caller, Poway): Yes, thank you. I just wanted to say that while, of course, what happened to Chelsea is tragic and everyone wants answers, it really (audio dropout) majority of rapes and murders of children are, in fact, done by family members or people very close to the family, and this law nor any other law doesn’t continue to address that main source of the problem.

PENNER: Okay, thank you, Christine. Christine, of course, is from Poway and that’s where Chelsea King is from. And we have another caller from Poway. Let’s hear from Mike from Poway as well, and we’ll respond to both calls. Mike, you’re on with the editors.

MIKE (Caller, Poway): Hi. I’m just – I’m a young person, 23 years old, know the King family, very upset and moved by everything that happened but really concerned about the financial cost that this law might pose for me, personally long term. And I just wonder how much of, you know, that money might be used towards enforcing the laws we already have which, if I understand correctly—I’m not an expert on the case—but if some of those laws that we already have had been enforced, what happened with Chelsea might have been averted. So I’m just really concerned about how much this is going to cost…

PENNER: Okay.

MIKE: …because I think it could be – we can just enforce the laws that are already on the books.

PENNER: Well, the legislative analyst said hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several decades, so that’s one cost that we know has already been documented by the nonpartisan legislative analyst. David King.

KING: Enforcing the laws on our books is always a good solution but there’s very few laws on the books in California that can’t be improved. And what Chelsea's Law seeks to do here is create a better approach. Rather than scoring people right when they’re admitted at a prison and using that score for the rest of their parole, they get reassessed, and that was the issue with John Gardner. He kept showing signs that this man isn’t learning his lesson, he’s still a criminal, he’s still offending. With the new dynamic scoring approach, his score would go up, other agencies would be involved. Instead of just having it being a Corrections issue, it’s a multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency approach to dealing with him and getting him the right treatment and thus reducing recidivism so we don’t have this revolving door where the same people come back around again.

PENNER: David, let me ask you this. What is the danger of having an emotional situation and an emotional response be the motivator for a new law?

KING: Absolutely, bad facts make bad laws. That happens time and again. But what Chelsea's Law, again, is revolutionary here is this is actually bipartisan. This is a man who’s – Nathan Fletcher, a local conservative Republican, working together with Mark Leno from San Francisco, who was too liberal to be elected the mayor of San Francisco, they come together, reach a compromise, work together. Mark Leno told Nathan Fletcher, you’re the first Republican who’s ever come to me genuinely seeking to get a bill through. You’re actually working with me. And Nathan worked with the other side, he’s worked through these issues, and it’s going to pass. It passed the Senate Public Safety Committee unanimously. It was unanimously approved by the Assembly. I don’t think there’s much doubt that this is going to get through the Senate and be signed by the governor.

PENNER: You know, I want to talk a little bit about opposition to the bill that is coming from an organization and we’re going to get to that as soon as we return. We’re going to take a short break now and then we will return and continue talking about the new proposed law called Chelsea's Law and whether it should, indeed, become law. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. I’m at the roundtable today with David King. David King is from sandiegonewsroom.com. And from the San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, we have John Warren back with us. And then Ricky Young, Watchdog editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and you, and we’re talking about the proposed Chelsea's Law, which would extend prison sentences for sex offenders and extend paroles for sex offenders as well. And we know this is going to be a costly legislation if it does really get through but, you know, when you start weighing things, how important is the money when we’re talking about lives, people’s lives? And that’s a question that we’re asking ourselves right now. Now, there is opposition to the bill and I would like to know where you stand on this. So far we’ve gotten some callers who really seem to be concerned about the financial costs of it. I’d like to know if your head is in the same place. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Opposition to the bill, Ricky, is from the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the country’s largest statewide organization of criminal defense lawyers. The group opposes this bill saying that there’s no proof that longer sentences and parole terms are effective. Will this become a major issue as this bill goes through the Senate?

YOUNG: No, I think, as David said – I think David said this. You know, I think the issue is settled at this point. There was some opposition from them and from the ACLU early on but a lot of the notes they sounded were addressed by the committee this week. And so at this point, as it moves forward, I think the opposition will be primarily on the fringe. I think that a lot of the notes they were sounding early on have at least apparently been addressed by the actions by the committee this week. So…

PENNER: Well, it was interesting to me – I’m wondering how the new law, and I think I’ll go to you on this, David, would prevent a murderer like John Gardner to be released despite being evaluated by a court appointed psychiatrist as a continued danger to underage girls and an extremely poor candidate for treatment.

KING: Well, his first offense, I believe, was against a 13-year-old and it was a forcible crime. I’m not sure but he may have even qualified under the one strike and life, and, again, life—true life, not life you get parole in 7 years or 25 years—life without parole. So if there’s truly the worst of the worst that we target here, we do lock them up, throw away the key.

PENNER: And John.

WARREN: I think the big difference, if I didn’t miss it, under this law is the very age of the victim automatically kicks them into the category of life without the possibility of parole, and that’s a major difference as opposed to a 25-to-life sentence in the other categories that David mentioned.

KING: There’s 51 different sex crimes that are – have enhanced penalties now because of – with Chelsea's Law. There’s a variety of different factors and every crime’s going to go into a rubric and exactly, you know, what degree of harm to the victim, how forcible, the age of the victim, so, again, every crime, I believe, is going to be treated more seriously and – but the approach here is to target the worst of the worst.

PENNER: David from Encinitas is with us now. David, you’re on with the editors.

DAVID (Caller, Encinitas): Hello.

PENNER: Hi, David. Please, go ahead.

DAVID: Okay. My comment is that I’m upset at the amount of money that’s going to be squandered. We have limited state resources. Nationwide, there are very few victims of sexual assault by – correction, murders done by these types of criminals and every day you have thousands of people who are killed with drunk driving and how many – We aren’t sending the resources to where it really needs to be.

PENNER: Thank you, David.

DAVID: And…

PENNER: And let me ask Ricky about that.

YOUNG: Yeah, Gloria, a number of the callers have raised the cost issue which, I think, is obviously a legitimate issue. But, you know, I just wanted to note an earlier caller named Mike said why don’t we just enforce the existing laws, and there would be a huge cost to that as well. You know, the Office of the Inspector General found hundreds of parole violations by John Gardner that were not caught by Parole and not prosecuted by Parole and found some culpability there. But, you know, think of the resources that would go into catching these guys for all of these violations and sending them back to prison. I mean, there would be a huge cost to that. So there – you know, this case has brought forth a number of things that could’ve been done to stop John Gardner but all of those have a cost as well just by enforcing the laws we currently have.

PENNER: And there may be a further cost because the family of Amber Dubois, another victim of John Gardner’s, has sued the state alleging the State Corrections Department missed chances to send John Gardner back to prison when he was on parole. Would Chelsea's Law have prevented that?

YOUNG: Would Chelsea's Law have prevented the claim or the…

PENNER: No, prevented John Gardner being out on parole even though he violated parole.

YOUNG: Oh, yeah, I think so. I think if there’s one thing that they will cling to in terms of Chelsea's Law in amendments, it will be to make sure that it would’ve put John Gardner behind bars for life. I did just want to note they haven’t filed a lawsuit yet. They have filed a claim against the state, which is a first step toward a lawsuit. You know, and given yesterday’s news that the Jaycee Dugard family in Northern California got $20 million for lax parole, it’ll be interesting to see how this moves forward for the Dubois and probably the Kings. We tried to talk to them yesterday to see if they were pursing legal action as well but it would’ve been Chelsea’s 18th birthday, so…

PENNER: And just finally, David, I know you want to say something but we’re just about out of time. I’d like to ask a broader question as we wrap up this discussion. The pendulum for crime and punishment is always in motion. It’s swinging from one approach of more permissiveness and rehabilitation to tough and inflexible sentencing. Where do you think we are now in California, David?

KING: We’re somewhere in between. There are some crimes, and there’s even federal crimes that are just – they have absolute mandatory minimums and what it does and one reason you’re going to get resistance from defense attorneys is if you’ve got a crime with just an inordinate level of punishment behind the primary charge, then you can get people just to plea out to something less and they won’t even take the chance and go defend themselves because there’s such a risk. Going back to the dollars and cents here, criminal punishment serves more purposes than just deterring crime and incapacitating criminals. They’re supposed to make heal a community, and the community wants to see people punished severely when they do something heinous like commit a sex crime violently against a young person.

PENNER: Okay, thank you. Final thoughts, John?

WARREN: We are not moving toward rehabilitation at this point. We’re looking for tougher penalties, and areas and means in which to release lesser offenders so we can make more room for tougher penalties.

PENNER: Okay, well, with that, we’re going to move on to our next topic.

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