Los Angeles Daily Journal article

 

Los Angeles Daily Journal, November 29, 2012

 

Sex offenders see harsher punishments, unlike other crimes


By Henry Meier, Daily Journal Staff Writer

Reforms to California's criminal justice system have drifted toward more rehabilitative measures in recent years. The state's realignment project moved prison populations to local jails and re-entry programs, and voters earlier this month overwhelmingly passed Proposition 36, lifting some of the more draconian provisions of three-strikes laws. Even the death penalty showed signs of vulnerability in the budget-conscious state, with 48 percent of voters favoring the failed state initiative seeking to abolish the punishment. But not every offense has experienced a slackening of the criminal justice noose in recent years. Sex offenses have been excluded from the reforms and have seen harsher punishments installed locally and nationally. Legal observers say it's unlikely the trends will abate soon.

"It's a hot-button political issue that no legislator wants to talk about," said John Abrahams, legislative director for the California Public Defenders Association.

Most recently, Congress passed legislation Tuesday that, if signed by President Barack Obama, would increase the penalty for possession of child pornography to a maximum of 20 years in prison if the offense involves a pre-pubescent victim, among other things. The current maximum term is 10 years.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for the Central District, declined to comment on the legislation but said the office's prosecution of child pornography cases "is a large part of our practice in the criminal division."

The federal legislation comes on the heels of California's passage of Proposition 35, which both upped punishment for sex trafficking crimes and added registration requirements for sex offenders.

Despite such efforts, some prosecutors say they believe sex offender statutes aren't punitive enough. California's child pornography sentences, in particular, are weak, according to Ventura County Senior Deputy District Attorney Howard Wise.

"I've researched with the national district attorneys' association, and California has the lowest potential penalties for possession of child pornography," he said.

Typically, possession-of-child-pornography convictions are broken up into 12-, 24- or 36-month sentences at the discretion of a judge. But unlike federal cases, state possession charges cannot be "stacked" or enhanced. The number of images stored on an electronic device and the severity of content don't matter for sentencing purposes, according to Wise.

But many defense attorneys say they think sentences are already long enough. Abrahams said his peers are most concerned with the fine print of the legislation and initiatives.

"What's troublesome is all the peripheral consequences that go with the [measures]," he said. "It's almost as troublesome as the sentences themselves."

Sex registration and parole conditions are particularly ambiguous, Abrahams added. "The rules are very confusing and become especially problematic when issues of mental health and homelessness are factored into the equation," he said.

But there's a more pressing problem, according to Lenore Anderson, director of Californians for Safety and Justice.

"The bigger issue is that most California counties have no systems in place to evaluate each person's risk," she wrote in an email Wednesday. "The crime alleged or committed is not the only factor behind one's risk to public safety. Mental health problems, drug addiction, family relationships, economic and employment status, previous criminal history and other individual factors must be part of risk assessment if judges and law enforcement are to make more informed decisions."

Another issue of debate when it comes to sex offender laws involves how they come about in the first place. Broad policy decisions often happen in response to specific high-profile incidents that might be the exception rather than the rule, Abrahams said, such as the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse case at Penn State University that roiled the nation last year.

"The California Legislature practically tripped over themselves in the wake of the Penn State situation to pass mandatory reporting rules," Abrahams said, referring to SB 1264, which required coaches to report suspected child sex abuse.

Part of the issue, he added, is the often visceral reaction that comes with sex offenses, particularly ones perpetrated against children.

"The average person in a given situation can understand murder," Abrahams said. "But they can't comprehend child sex offenses. It just doesn't compute. I don't know if I understand it. They are very tough cases to litigate."

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