State Supreme Court strikes down a portion of ‘Jessica's Law'

SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) -- The California Supreme Court has ruled that a voter-approved ban

that bars paroled sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park is unconstitutional when applied to areas where it is virtually impossible to find housing that meets the requirement.

The restrictions were part of an initiative approved by state voters in 2006 as Proposition 83, sometimes known as Jessica's Law in memory of a Florida girl who was raped and murdered by a convicted sex offender.

The unanimous ruling by the high court applies specifically to San Diego County, but the reasoning is expected to extend to other urban counties, including some in the Bay Area, where there is little rental housing not within 2,000 feet of a school or park.

"It definitely will apply in other counties," said attorney Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley.

"The problem (of finding housing that met the restrictions) is prevalent in many counties throughout California. The court has found that the law places an unreasonable burden on parolees and actually hinders rather than promotes public safety," Specter said.

The state Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit filed by a group of registered sex offenders in San Diego County. It upheld similar decisions by a Superior Court trial judge and state appeals court.

Justice Marvin Baxter wrote that the trial judge found the restrictions barred paroled sex offenders from 97 percent of the rental apartments and low-cost residential hotels that would otherwise be available to them, and that the remaining 3 percent was not necessarily available for reasons such as high rents and reluctant landlords.

As a result, the law has led to greatly increased homelessness among sex offenders in San Diego County and greater difficulty for authorities in supervising them, Baxter said.

"Blanket enforcement of the residency restrictions against these parolees has severely restricted their ability to find housing in compliance with the statute, greatly increased the incidence of homelessness among them, and hindered their access to medical treatment, drug and alcohol dependency services, psychological counseling and other rehabilitative services," Baxter wrote.

At the same time, the enforcement has hampered "the efforts of parole authorities and law enforcement officials to monitor, supervise and rehabilitate them in the interests of public safety," he said.

"It has thus infringed their liberty and privacy rights, however limited, while bearing no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators," the court said.

The decision strikes down "across the board" application of the restrictions to all paroled registered sex offenders in San Diego, but notes that parole authorities have the power to impose special conditions, including residential restrictions, on individual parolees.

Other state laws not affected by the ruling prohibit paroled sex offenders from entering a school or day care facility without permission or entering any park where children regularly gather if the offender's victim was under 14, the court said.

Proposition 83 co-author and former state Sen. George Runner, who is now a member of the state Board of Equalization, criticized the decision.

"Today's California Supreme Court decision could allow a child molester to live across the street from a school or park where children gather. It puts San Diego families at risk and sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the state," Runner said.

Runner, then a Republican state senator from Antelope Valley, and his wife Sharon, then a Republican assemblywoman, co-authored Proposition 83, entitled the Sexual Predator and Control Act.

In addition to establishing the residency restriction, the law increased penalties for sex offenders, extended parole for some offenses and prohibited probation for others.