By Elizabeth Limbach
No one wants to sound soft when it comes to sex offenders. And while America seems to be cracking down on sex crimes in more stringent ways than ever, some fear that these measures are ineffective and at times dehumanizing.
When Proposition 83 passed by 70 percent in last week’s midterm election, it put new, more severe penalties for sex offenders into effect. Also known as "Jessica’s Law," Prop 83 elongates the prison and parole terms for sex offenders, increases the required living distance from any schools or parks to 2,000 feet, and requires lifelong GPS monitoring for those who were convicted of felony sex crimes.
Within one day of its overwhelming passage, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston deterred the proposition on grounds that it may be unconstitutional. Illston put a temporary restraint on the proposition when an unidentified San Francisco sex offender immediately contested the measure, requesting that the new legislation only apply to sex offenders who register after the laws are put into effect. Many offenders, like this man, who committed their crime several decades ago are worried that the new legislation would uproot them from homes they own or have resided in for years. Despite the instantaneous opposition from those previously charged with sex crimes, the resulting large majority vote for the proposition highlights an increasingly condemning attitude toward sex offenders in society.
UCSC Rape Prevention Coordinator Gillian Greensite is concerned that the legislation will further marginalize sex offenders, preventing them from re-assimilating into society.
"What is the logic of making measures against sex offenders so punitive that they would be driven underground and away from communities where they might reestablish their lives?" Greensite said. "To dislocate them is not grounds for hoping to prevent any future crimes."
Recently, local sex offenders found that it was difficult to find housing in Santa Cruz even without the new measures in action.
The Happy Valley Villa boarding house, off pastoral Branciforte Drive, is more than the required distance from any child-frequented schools or parks. But when neighbors discovered that 17 of the Villa’s 25 residents were registered sex offenders, they raised concern to local authorities.
No parole violations or illegal activity were linked to the house, but according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Villa was shut down soon after for longstanding water and building code violations.
The legislation under Proposition 83 makes it even harder for sex offenders to find appropriate housing, Greensite says. Although "sex offender" has become one of the worst titles in American society, Greensite believes that the answer to the problem is prevention rather than an increase in punishment.
"We have to take a good hard look at the broad aspects of society that create the conditions in which you have the maximum number of men committing sexual violence in the first place," Greensite said.
Santa Cruz Probation Officer Janet Kennedy agrees that making consequences harsher will not affect the root of the problem.
"It’s a cyclical thing," Kennedy said. "If we stop people from molesting in the first place we will not generate more molesters." She hopes that with Prop 83 under effect, law enforcement will receive more financial support for controlling local sex offenders. As of now, Kennedy says, there is only one officer for the 100 sex offenders currently on probation in Santa Cruz.
Although Jessica’s Law implements the strictest sex offender laws in the country, California is not the only state taking radical measures to handle such criminals.
In the week of Oct. 22, the U.S. Marshals joined forces with law enforcement in 24 east coast states to accomplish Operation Falcon III, a roundup of violent sex offenders and gang members, whom officials called "the worst of the worst." According to the U.S. Marshals’ website, the seven-day operation resulted in the arrest of 1,659 people wanted for sexual offenses. Of the group, 971 were arrested for not registering as a sex offender, which became a federal crime earlier this year.
According to Sgt. Robin Mitchell, of the Santa Cruz Sheriff Sexual Assault Unit, Santa Cruz is home to 410 registered sex offenders, including the 100 on probation. However, she said, Santa Cruz officials will not have to resort to any such means of capturing unregistered sex offenders.
"We have at least a 90 percent compliance rate and if they are not registered or cooperative, we have warrants out for their arrest," Mitchell said.
Sex offenders across the nation experienced another form of restriction when they were advised to not participate in Halloween festivities. Authorities, worried for young trick-or-treaters, set Halloween curfews for sex offenders and required that they leave their house lights off and their doors closed to avoid interaction with the youngsters.
According to the Associated Press, nine sex offenders were arrested in South Carolina on Halloween for violating the statewide curfew.
Californians will learn the fate of Prop 83 after its Nov. 27 hearing, but until then the issue remains a matter of controversy.
"How can anyone be for sex criminals?" Greensite said. "It was a vote that reflects people’s understandable revulsion of sex crimes. But if only the general population had known what is being proposed and the effects of what is being proposed, [voters] would have thought it through more carefully."