Nathan Fletcher. Photo by David Rolland.
As quoted in The San Diego Union-Tribune on Tuesday, Kelly King, the mother of slain Poway teenager Chelsea King, said, “We must demand nothing short of swift and decisive action for all of our children” when it comes to dealing with people who commit sex crimes against minors.
Actually, we'd have preferred deliberate and thoughtful action, but we realize that no one's going to stop grieving parents when they're battling against what's the perceived as the most heinous public enemy and backed by a politician on a mission and a daily newspaper in a constant state of hysteria.
In truth, arguing against clamping down on violent sex offenders is a tough task amid emotional bursts of rhetoric and strident calls for action—it takes time and energy to get past the initial response to the problem. And that's why even two local Democrats, the party less prone to counterproductive tough-on-crime measures, publicly backed Chelsea's Law, proposed Monday in Sacramento by Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher.
At first glance, in the immediate wake of a high-profile arrest of a man who allegedly raped and murdered a pretty young girl, after having been imprisoned for a relatively short time for forcibly molesting a 13-year-old, Chelsea's Law seems like a good idea. It would increase prison terms for people convicted of the worst crimes against children, including life in the clink without parole for the worst of the worst, require lifelong parole for people convicted of crimes involving contact with kids younger than 14, double parole from five to 10 years for people convicted of certain crimes against teenagers older than 13 and bar sex offenders on parole from entering a park without permission from the park's chief administrator or the parolee's parole agent.
(Incidentally, if this law were in place when John Gardner, the man accused of killing Chelsea King, was convicted of his first crime—lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14—he would have qualified for lifetime parole, but it's far from certain that he would have been sentenced to increased prison time. The proposed law doesn't change the fact that he was a first-time offender and prosecutors were trying to avoid putting the victim on the stand, leading to a plea deal.)
The problem is that the proposed law is expensive—and California is broke—and it addresses only a small portion of the danger; therefore, it's likely not cost-effective. All that increased supervision, not to mention increased incarceration, is pricey stuff, and it'll continue the trend of siphoning money from programs that might help prevent such crimes and others that might stop criminals from repeating their crimes.
As we've written before, the danger to children posed by strangers is relatively rare. Child victims almost always know their attackers, and nearly half the time, the offender and victim are family according to the state Attorney General. Recidivism is far lower among sex offenders than the general criminal population, and there are plenty of studies available through a quick Internet search that refute the claim made by Chelsea King's parents that sex offenders can't be treated. While treatment won't stop all re-offenses, behavioral therapy has been shown to reduce recidivism among numerous classes of offenders.
The larger problem, such as it is, is with first-time offenders and with predators who develop relationships over time with children rather than leap from the bushes and attack them. Adults who prey on children tend to commit their crimes only after earning a child's—and sometimes a family's—trust. However, that's not the crisis that gets people all lathered up, perhaps because it's not as terrifying as rape and murder by total strangers. Fletcher's bill neither keeps children safe from familial and acquaintance molestation nor helps them protect themselves from the rare stranger attack. Nor does it reflect any knowledge of recommendations made in January by the California Sex Offender Management Board. Nor does it fix problems in Jessica's Law.
Most among us would sacrifice the freedom of some offenders who are treatable if it might spare the life of even one child. Empathy for those who victimize kids is in short supply. We get that. Just know that while the expensive solution on the table might feel good, it doesn't solve the bulk of the problem.
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