OC District Attorney Fights California Bail, Sex & Gun Reforms

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — The Orange County district attorney on Monday blasted bills pending in the Legislature that would loosen California’s sex-offender registration requirements, largely eliminate its bail system, and allow shorter sentences for felony use of a gun, saying the changes would have “a dramatic and negative impact” on public safety.

Speaking at his office headquarters, Tony Rackauckas said the three bills “are part of a general assault on the criminal justice system taking place right now” that favors more lenient treatment of offenders.

Joining him at the news conference were two local leaders of the national victims’ rights movement, Broadcom co-founder Henry T. Nicholas III and Erin Runyon, whose 5-year-old daughter Samantha was sexually assaulted and murdered in 2002.

Nicholas, who sponsored a victims’ rights amendment to the state constitution called Marsy’s Law, named after his murdered sister, called the new bills “terrible public policy.” He said legislators should “reconsider these bills from the perspective of victims, something which seems not to have been done.”

California voters approved Marsy’s Law in 2008.

All three of the new bills have been approved by the state Senate and await action in the Assembly.

Senate Bill 421 on the sex offender registry and Senate Bill 10 on the bail system both were to be considered today, Tuesday, July 11, at a hearing of the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

Rackauckas and the other speakers on Monday focused on the sexual offender registry and bail proposals. The first, Senate Bill 421, would eliminate California’s requirement of lifetime registration for all sexual offenders and replace it with a three-tiered system.

California is one of only four states, along with Alabama, Florida and South Carolina, to require universal lifetime registration, according to the bill’s author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

“Whether you’re a sexual predator or an 80-year-old gay man caught having sex in a park in 1958, you’re … on that registry for life,” Wiener said in a legislative analysis of the bill.

The three-tiered system proposed by SB 421 is similar to ones used in many other states. The most serious offenders would still be required to register for life. But offenders convicted of misdemeanor or nonviolent felony offenses would stay on the registry for only 10 years. Those convicted of violent or serious felonies would stay on for 20 years, all provided they did not commit new sex crimes.

Rackauckas complained that people caught with thousands of child pornography images on their computers would receive the lightest treatment, while many rapists would land in the middle tier.

“We’re deeply concerned about the public’s ability to know who’s living next door to them,” the district attorney said.

Runyon, who founded the Joyful Child Foundation after her daughter’s murder, said SB 421 would let more than 10,000 offenders get off the registry because they committed their crimes before 1987. Another 45,000 or so would immediately be able to appeal their status, she said.

Supporters of the legislation — including the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, which is a sponsor of the bill, and the Alameda district attorney — complain that the California sex offender registry has more than 100,000 names on it and has become so unwieldy as to be of limited use in solving new sex crimes.

“Law enforcement is spending too much of their finite sex offender supervision funding on paperwork of low risk offenders instead of focusing on managing and supervising high risk offenders that pose the greatest risk to public safety,” L.A. prosecutors say in the bill analysis.

Rackauckas and Runyon both said they believe the system could be improved. “Having everyone register for life shouldn’t have to be required,” he said.

The district attorney said his office is working with the bill’s sponsor to offer some amendments during the Public Safety Committee hearing today.

Except for Rackauckas, the bill has drawn almost no formal opposition so far.

However, Senate Bill 10, to replace the cash bail system in California, has drawn considerable opposition from law enforcement and from the bail bond industry.

Under the current system, everyone charged with a crime in California must post bail as set out in a detailed schedule, listing crimes and corresponding bail amounts, such as $20,000 for a general felony or $1 million for murder.

The proposed system would largely replace the money bail system with pretrial release system that has the goal of keeping people out of custody if it can be done safely. Several states, including, most recently, New Jersey, have adopted similar plans.

But Rackauckas said that under the three-tiered system, “all but the most serious offenders would be released back into the community.”

Under SB 10, offenders charged with something other than a violent felony would go before a pretrial release agency within six hours of arrest, even “before the district attorneys could read the police report,” he said.

The agency would have to release the suspect “with the least restrictive conditions deemed necessary” to ensure public safety and the suspect’s returning to court, according to the bill.

Judges would set release conditions in more serious cases, but would have to aim for release when possible. They could not impose monetary conditions that the suspect is unable to meet.

The lead author of the bill, Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, has said the current money bail system “criminalizes poverty” and is “the modern equivalent of debtor’s prison.”

Rackauckas said the standards in Hertzberg’s legislation for setting conditions or money bail are “so anemic it’s ridiculous.”

The legislation would decimate the private bail bond system, leaving no one motivated to chase down defendants who skip out on court appearances, the district attorney said.

He said that crime victims could be required to testify at pretrial release hearings within days of their victimization, contrary to the state’s many laws meant to protect victims from harassment.

“Defendants could actually require victims to come to court so they could cross-examine them” during those very early hearings, Rackauckas said.

Finally, Rackauckas said the requirement to create new pretrial services agencies in every county and to hold release hearings could cost taxpayers a great deal of money.

But supporters of the bill have said it would save money: the costs of keeping people in jail.

Nicholas said he believed both the bail legislation and the sex registry legislation would violate victims’ rights gained by Marsy’s Law. He said that if either one is adopted, he will “move forward vigorously” to have the law declared unconstitutional before it could take effect.

The third bill, Senate Bill 620, on firearm sentencing enhancements, awaits a vote by the full Assembly. It would change a law that requires longer sentences for defendants convicted of using a gun during a felony.

Under existing law, if a gun is simply “used,” 10 years must be added to the sentence. If the gun is fired, the defendant’s sentence must be extended 20 years, and if someone is injured, the sentence must be life.

The bill’s author, state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Los Angeles, said SB 620 would give judges discretion to strike a gun-use enhancement in the interests of justice.

Rackauckas opposes it. He said Monday that the “10-20-Life Use a Gun and You’re Done” law has been “simple and effective” and should stay on the books.

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