In 2006, California voters passed Proposition 83 – the ballot initiative dealing with punishment, residency restrictions, and monitoring of sex offenders and sexually violent predators – by an overwhelming 70 percent. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, California lawmakers were aiming to pass the “toughest sex offender law in the nation” when they drafted Proposition 83. The passage of Proposition 83 demonstrates how California’s laws governing sex offenses are becoming more and more stringent and the punishments more and more draconian for those convicted of such offenses.
While the term “sex offense” tends to bring up horrific images of sexual assault in the minds of the public, the term encompasses a variety of actions, from indecent exposure to statutory rape to sexual assault. Sex offenses range in level of severity from misdemeanor to felony.
California Laws Governing Sex Offenses: Proposition 83
Proposition 83 was designed to be California’s version of a so-called “Jessica’s Law,” named for legislation passed in Florida in 2005 in the wake of the highly-publicized rape and murder of a young girl by a convicted sex offender. Such laws target sex offenders and attempt to limit offenders’ ability to reoffend. In the years following the passage of Jessica’s Law, 42 states followed Florida’s lead and passed laws expanding punishment for sex offenses and further regulating the movement of those convicted of sex offenses after they have served their sentences.
Once Proposition 83 became law, it increased the penalties for sex offenses in several ways. First, the definitions of certain sex offenses changed so that more actions qualified as sex offenses. For example, the new law redefined “aggravated sexual assault of a child” so that the offender only had to be seven years older than the victim, rather than 10 years older, as the law previously required.
The law now mandates longer sentences for sex offenses. Lawmakers removed the discretion of the court in sentencing those convicted of some sex offenses by replacing the words “is punishable” with the words “shall be punished” in the statute – effectively instituting mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses. The law now requires judges to impose consecutive sentences, rather than allowing a judge to impose a concurrent sentence, for each offense if the defendant was found guilty of the offense against more than one victim or with the same victim more than one time.
The list of sex offenses that qualify for life sentences in prison expanded, and probation is no longer an option for those found guilty of certain offenses. Those convicted of some sex offenses cannot earn early release credits while serving their sentences. Additionally, the time on parole for those convicted of sex offenses extended after Proposition 83 became law.
In addition to imposing prison terms, California fines those convicted of sex offenses. Proposition 83 contained a provision for raising these fines. The fine increased from $200 to $300 for a first sex offense and from $300 to $500 for subsequent offenses.
Even after a person is finished serving a sentence for a sex offense, the punishment continues. Proposition 83 expanded the distance away from parks and schools which a sex offender must live. Previously, a sex offender was restricted to distances 1,320 feet or 2,640 feet away, depending on the offense. Now, the law requires all sex offenders to live a minimum of 2,000 feet away from parks and schools, effectively precluding sex offenders from living in densely populated urban areas, where parks and schools proliferate.
Those convicted of a felony sex offense now face lifetime tracking with global positioning system devices after release from prison as well. The California Department of Corrections levies fees on the offender to pay for the tracking, in addition to the fines that the court orders during sentencing.
Proposition 83 also drastically altered the civil commitment laws of California with respect to sex offenses. It expanded the number of sex offenders eligible for civil commitment after they complete their prison sentences. The law changed so that a person only needs one prior offense rather than two offenses to be eligible for civil commitment. Also, the list of offenses that count as a prior offense expanded; it now includes some offenses a person committed while a juvenile. Today, the law calls for civil commitment for indeterminate periods of time, rather than mandating two years as was the law in the past. The standard for release from civil commitment is now more stringent as well.
Sex Offenses and California’s Three Strike Law
The expansion of the reach of California’s sex offense laws has implications under California’s “three strikes” law. California is known nation-wide as having one of the most stringent sentencing schemes in the country. Judges are required to add sentence enhancements to those who have prior felony convictions. Those who have two felony convictions – either deemed serious or violent felonies – must receive a 25-year to life sentence per each felony charge or conviction. Furthermore, under the three strikes law, sentence enhancements actually begin with the second strike.
After Proposition 83 became law, all sex offense convictions now count as a “strike” for the purposes of the three strikes law, whether or not they were violent. Proposition 83 increased the amount of time added onto a sentence for a second and third sex offense conviction.
Sex Offender Registry
The impact of a conviction for a sex offense is lifelong. Those convicted of sex offenses must register as sex offenders after they rejoin society. In 1947, California became the first state to require sex offenders to register with law enforcement agencies. The law currently imposes a lifelong obligation to register, requiring annual renewal. The registrant is responsible for informing the police of any moves or name changes.
The public had access to the sex offender registry information starting in 1995 with the establishment of the Child Molester Identification Line. The amount of information available on this hotline expanded in 1996, after California passed its version of “Megan’s Law,” – a New Jersey law aimed at informing people when sex offenders moved into their neighborhoods.
In 2004, California made the information available on the internet. The law designates four categories of registrants for the sex offender registry on the internet, based on the severity of the offense: home address, conditional home address, zip code, and undisclosed. In addition to a registrant’s home address being available on the internet in some cases, the police may also notify residents of a neighborhood when a sex offender moves into the area.
Given the long-term and potentially devastating consequences of a sex offense conviction, it is imperative to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney if you are facing charges for a sex offense.