March 9 2010 07:09 PM

Let's hope Nathan Fletcher's inquiry is genuine and not merely a grab for law-and-order glory


Nathan Fletcher. Photo by David Rolland. 

It was as predictable as the new reality of rainfall every weekend in San Diego: A state lawmaker was sure to make camp in the spotlight amid the grief and anger over the apparent murder of two teenage girls and vow to spearhead sweeping changes to current law.

Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher, a Republican, announced Tuesday that he'll team with the parents of Chelsea King to conduct a thorough investigation of sex-offender laws and, ultimately, propose a new one—Chelsea's Law—to take its place in the books next to Megan's Law and Jessica's Law. What the new law will do, Fletcher says, depends on the results of the investigation, which will include public hearings and draw testimony from experts, as well as regular folks.

We think there ought to be a cooling-off period between terrible events like what happened to Chelsea King and Amber Dubois and the making of new laws intended to fix whatever went wrong. But at least Fletcher is proposing a deadline-free survey of current statutes rather than breathlessly demanding harsher penalties for sex offenders across the board like so many frothing right-wing radio hosts and print columnists.

Still, it's not like there isn't a gargantuan amount of information out there to help Fletcher understand the situation. Surely, he knows about the state's Sex Offender Management Board, which was created in 2006 and tasked with doing precisely what Fletcher is proposing. The first thing he should do is read each of the SOMB's reports, the latest of which, a 116-page document, was released in January and, in our view, drew insufficient attention. That report was unambiguous:

“The reality in California is, rather than a coherent and coordinated sex offender management system, the state has multiple sex offender management strategies created by various legislative, voter initiative and executive branch actions with varied ‘mandates' and very different funding requirements and funding assurances. ... Although various components of the system have learned to work together, the overall system could not be described as coherent, cohesive and coordinated.”

We were encouraged to hear Fletcher say that “everything is on the table” and promise to be open to the possibility that the best way to improve the system is by loosening restrictions on sex offenders who've shown no evidence of violent tendencies. There are 92,000 Californians currently snared in the sex-offender net; state and local police agencies have limited resources to monitor these people. The smart course will likely be to allow them to focus on the people who are genuinely dangerous predators.

If they listen carefully to experts, Fletcher and Co. are sure to learn the realities. People who harm children tend to be family members or acquaintances; the percentage who are total strangers is very low. Also, they're likely to learn that while we certainly want to protect kids from sexual deviants, the vast majority are not violent. They don't get off on force; they prefer consensual acts. That's why people who target children sexually tend to be charming. And recidivism among sex offenders is lower than among the larger convict population. Harsher penalties won't do much to solve the problem posed by first-time attackers, who make up the majority of sex offenders. That is, unless you believe in the deterrent argument. We don't; convincing us that someone who's predisposed to raping and murdering a child is going to think twice because of the ramifications will be a tough sale.

Kudos to the producers of KPBS's These Days radio program for inviting David Peters, a marriage and family psychotherapist, to be a guest on Tuesday morning's show. Peters was a voice of calm who noted that violent crime has long been on the decline and that children remain relatively safe despite the occasional horrific event. Kids need to learn how to be safe, he said, but they should not be filled with fear.

The January SOMB report sums things up as well as we could, and we hope Fletcher takes this to heart:

“In the aftermath of an assault, communities often demand with great vehemence that policymakers and public safety professionals DO SOMETHING. The root of the desire to acknowledge the serious nature of the crime is difficult to disparage but, when combined with fear, misinformation and the heat of media inquiry, the flame of community outrage can create a political environment that rewards swift action over more methodical, effective approaches. On occasion, these swift approaches may address short-term community outrage at the cost of directing resources and skilled personnel away from investments in strategies for long-term safety.”   

What do you think? Write to


See all events on Tuesday, Oct 25