California Owes Counties for Voter-Backed Criminal Reforms

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s highest court ruled Monday that the state must shoulder the cost of complying with Jessica’s Law, a voter-passed initiative requiring stricter monitoring of convicted felony sex offenders.

The ruling resolves a four-year dispute over whether the state should have reimbursed counties for implementing Proposition 83, officially known as the Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act.

Among other things, it broadened the definition of certain sex offenses and increased penalties for violent and habitual felony offenders, in some cases requiring lifelong electronic monitoring.

Usually when the California Legislature mandates a new program, it is conditionally required to reimburse the counties for the cost. Proposition 83 reenacted the Sexually Violent Predators Act of 1998, and was projected at the time to cost tens of millions of dollars annually to implement.

But the Commission on State Mandates concluded California was no longer obligated to reimburse local governments for the cost of applying the newly modified law, since six of the duties mandated by the state in the 1998 version were now required by the new Jessica’s Law.

The counties of San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Sacramento banded together to challenge the commission’s decision. Though they lost at the trial court, the counties prevailed on appeal. On Monday, the California Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s ruling that Jessica’s Law did not substantially change the Sexually Violent Predators Act.

“We conclude that the commission’s approach is at odds with the constitutional requirement that the state reimburse local governments for the costs of complying with state mandates,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar wrote for the unanimous court.

He added it would be unreasonable for the state to expect counties to assume the cost of complying with the law, and that simply restating the Sexually Violent Predators Act in ballot measure form doesn’t allow the state to shirk its funding obligations.

“The commission’s view implies that merely restating a state-mandated duty in a ballot measure to renumber the section, correct punctuation or grammar errors, or substitute gender-neutral language automatically relieves the state of its obligation to reimburse local governments for performing their assigned role,” Cuellar wrote.

The commission must now determine to what extent the 2006 law’s expanded definition of a sexually violent predator affects the state’s duty to reimburse the counties.

“When you have voter-imposed activities then the state doesn’t have to pay for them,” said Jennifer Henning, an attorney for the California State Association of Counties and League of California Cities who submitted an amicus curiae brief in the case.

The state and the commission had argued that just the act of putting the initiative before the voters changed the nature of the law from being state-imposed to voter-imposed.

“The Supreme Court said ‘No, that’s not enough.’ There has to be some kind of substantive change to the mandated activities. Just reprinting it doesn’t change the character,” Henning said.

Otherwise, one could imagine a scenario where the Legislature could shift the cost burden for all kinds of state mandates onto local governments.

“It puts us between a rock and a hard place to have these mandated activities but no revenue to pay for it. It seems the court really understood that,” she said.

The San Diego County Counsel’s Office had no comment on the ruling.

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