The parole system has been heavily criticized since registered sex offender John Gardner pled guilty to raping and killing two teenage girls in Southern California. In the wake of the murders, Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a Republican from San Diego, introduced Chelsea’s Law, a bill named after one of Gardner’s victims, Chelsea King.
The bill does a few things. It gives judges the option of sentencing someone to life without parole in the case of a forcible sex crime against a child. It increases the time some released sex offenders must spend on parole. And it creates a risk assessment system for identifying which sex offenders need more treatment and supervision.
Recently, I called up Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher to talk about the bill, which goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee tomorrow.
You know, we’ve talked to a lot of parole officers over the years here at KALW, and we, I’m sure you’ve heard, had our own sort of illuminative episode in the Bay Area where Phillip Garrido was found to have been housing Jaycee Lee Dugard in his backyard. Which was not something that his parole officers ever suspected. And you know, there’s constant news about parole being underfunded and parole officers being under-staffed, over-stretched. How is parole actually going to be equipped to accomplish this higher level of supervision for the parolees that they will be responsible for, for a lifetime or for 20 years?
NF: I think that’s a great question and I very aggressively went after the Department of Corrections on a number of things. In terms of how do you do things, why, and what do you need? And I had a really tough time getting them to tell me what they need to be successful. I just couldn’t get anything. The couple things we identified as a problem was the risk assessment tool. So they’re not really able to prioritize. So let’s go back to John Gardner. John Gardner comes out of prison. He has a mental health evaluation when he’s released that says “do not let him out, he will re-offend, he will hurt young girls again.” But they didn’t have a choice, they let him out and put him on parole. While he was on parole, he had seven parole violations. You know, seven different times he violated parole. And they were the kind of things that people in the field say are indicators. You know, marijuana possession, who he’s hanging out with, these types of things. So his risk assessment should have gone up and he should have been afforded more attention and more resources. For someone who’s in compliance and doing the right thing you probably don’t need as much attention or as many resources. So with the dynamic risk assessment and containment model, what we’re really trying to do is allow corrections to really focus and prioritize on the people that are most likely to re-offend.
On that note, has there been any talk around the capitol of perhaps reforming some of the laws regarding sex offenders that are already on the books that tend to come in the way of CDCR? Like Jessica’s Law, obviously the 290 categorization*, I think it’s pretty well documented that it’s overly broad. Has there been any talk about cleaning up these old laws that are on the books?
[Note: Jessica’s Law, passed in 2006 through a voter ballot initiative, makes it so that sex offenders who fall under penal code 290 must wear GPS tracking devices and not live within 200 feet of a school or park. The category includes people who have committed rape and child molestation, but also includes people who have been convicted of things like indecent exposure and sometimes public urination.]
Yeah, so a number of those things kind of came up as we went through this process and one, with the initiative it’s hard. Because some things you have to go back to the voters on. We aren’t writing a bill for all sex offenders. There’s nothing in my bill that deals with the 18-year-old with the 17-year-old girlfriend. There’s nothing in my bill that deals with the guy who gets drunk and pees on the sidewalk or in the alley. We really tried to focus our efforts in our bill on people who violently sexually go after young children. So there were conversations about it, but at the end of the day, a lot of these things were strengthened, but they weren’t really addressed or cleaned up.
Similarly, I just want to get a sense from you how much you think this bill is going to accomplish. I mean, we just have thousands and thousands of sex crimes. Something like 9,000 a year in California. And our recidivism rate for sex offenders within five years is remarkably lower than one might think, it’s only about 4 percent. So it seems like we’re targeting a very small number of people in this bill. What do you think about the amount of resources that’s going to have to be dedicated to this bill versus what kind of dent it’s going to make in these crimes that are committed?
I think it’s a very, very fair question. And on the resources bit, we’ve offset the cost. Still the question is, we’re going to spend the resources. I really think that somebody that violently sexually goes after a young child is just in a different category of criminal and I think it’s just a different level of evil. You should focus your attention on those people. So I think the life without parole option, while it may not apply to a large number of people, it’s certainly going to apply to a category of people who unfortunately I think we just cannot let back out into society. And so I think that’s a positive step and I just think it’s a good thing to do. In terms of the increased parole periods, what you’re doing is you’re taking people who you fear are likely to re-offend and all of those are forcible violent sex crimes against children who are under the age of 14. So it’s particularly heinous. All of the parole increases are only if the victim was under 14 because we drew that as a point at which you know, we think it’s a greater offense because the child is so much younger. And we really just said we will provide the resources to get them to focus. When they get released, to track them, to monitor them, to get them the treatment that they need. And while some stats may point to low recidivism rates, when you look at the number of sex crimes that go unreported, it’s staggering. I mean one estimate I read had that 85 percent of them go unreported. In 2001, the Department of Justice did a story in Florida where they did polygraphs on sex offenders who had gone after children. And they found that on average, those people had been committing offenses for 14 years before they got caught the first time and had something like 200 victims. I mean it was staggering, it was really shocking. So you know, the recidivism rate may be low, but when you look at the number of unreported crimes, it’s still a very serious thing.
I just wonder, and I’m not sure if this is true or not, if these laws do give people a false sense of security. And make them less alert to the signs of their child being abused, or their neighbor being a potential abuser. Just because people are like, oh, these laws are in place to protect us. I just wonder about that sometimes.
Yeah, and I’ve tried to stay realistic about it. And we always say that there’s no legislation you can pass that removes evil from the world. And there’s nothing in our bill that stops the first offense. There’s nothing in our bill that stops the first offense. So I think your points are really good and that parents have to be very vigilant in terms of watching their kids, where they go, who they’re with. And then knowing the signs. Is there something going on with my child, having conversations with your kid, talking to them. So there’s nothing that we can do to stop all sex offenses. I think what we can do is when you have the proper warnings that someone’s going to re-offend, when they demonstrate that they have a propensity for these types of repeat offenses, then you have to do everything in your power to prioritize and focus on that person and keep them away from kids. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do.
Well thank you so much for taking to time to talk with us.
No problem, take care.