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Reforming Sex Offender Laws

California's Chelsea's Law rethinks the way the state manages sex offenders who will return to society.

After the rape and murder of Chelsea King, a San Diego County teenager, California legislators decided they had to do something. Amid the emotions of the tragedy, they passed a rational, thoughtful law.

That was an unexpected outcome, because many of the approaches that states take to prevent sex crimes are based more on fears than hard evidence. That’s as true in California as any other place. There, with the support of most of the state’s key politicians, voters approved a 2006 ballot initiative, known as Jessica’s Law, that barred sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, day-care centers, parks or churches.

Researchers and law enforcement groups overwhelmingly say that residency restrictions don’t prevent sexual assaults and, in fact, are counterproductive because they drive sex offenders underground, making them more difficult to track. In 2006, though, that message didn’t get through. “[Jessica’s Law] was a knee-jerk reaction that went against almost everything we know that is effective in dealing with sex offenders,” says Robert Coombs, a victims’ rights advocate and former chair of California’s Sex Offender Management Board.

This year the response was different. Chelsea’s Law began as a bill focused on tougher sentences, and its final version still takes that approach, including a provision that will mandate life sentences without the possibility of parole for sex offenders who violently attack children. But thanks to a collaboration between Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a San Diego County Republican, and Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, it also includes a broad rethinking of the way the state manages sex offenders who will return to society.

The law adopts a “containment model” that researchers in the field describe as the most promising approach to reduce sex offender recidivism. The approach couples mandatory treatment with intensive monitoring and regular lie-detector tests. While state policies often treat all offenders the same regardless of the nature of their crimes, the containment model is different. Parole officers and therapists place restrictions on offenders and pursue a treatment strategy based on their individual situations.

Leno says Chelsea’s Law is just a first step. He and Fletcher have discussed teaming up next year to try to mend some of the flaws of Jessica’s Law. Does that mean sex offender policy in California is finally headed in a more rational direction? “I could answer that question with more authority,” Leno says, “a year from now.”

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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