California's Fight Over Jessica's Law

The last week of legislative action — or inaction — in Sacramento’s lower house was very intense. It was made especially so due to the heated debate on how our state will deal with child molesters. Would the Assembly approve Democrat Mark Leno’s AB 50 or the more sensible Jessica’s Law?

First, some history.

Mr. Leno’s Assembly Bill 50 started out early last year as a measure to weaken California’s highly effective and voter-approved Three Strikes Law. This isn’t surprising when one considers that the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, like its sister committee in the Senate, is notoriously tilted left and highly reluctant to consider tough on crime legislation. Mr. Leno chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee. In fact, the Democrat leadership has packed the Public Safety Committee with liberals in such a way that more mainstream Democrats (there are a few) have a history of being removed from the committee.

Along comes AB 231 by Assemblywoman Sharon Runner, a Republican. AB 231 is an effort to toughen California’s laws against child molesters and sexual predators. Modeled on other states’ successful passage of Jessica’s Law, this bill was resoundingly defeated twice in the Public Safety Committee on a strict party-line vote, the two Republicans voting "yes" and the five Democrats voting "no" or abstaining.

Not easily deterred, Mrs. Runner converted AB 231 into an initiative that now, coincidentally has over 400,000 signatures and is on its way to a probable debut on the November 2006 ballot, enjoying the enthusiastic support of Gov. Schwarzenegger. With AB 231 now the Jessica’s Law initiative and looking strong, we return to Mr. Leno’s AB 50.

AB 50, as it appeared on the Assembly floor last week, would have allowed 100 items of knowingly possessed child pornography before triggering penalties. "Items" might include CD-ROMs, capable of containing tens of thousands of pornographic images. The bill would not have instituted a statewide GPS tracking system for all molesters. And it only slightly increased prison time for felons.

The Democrat majority said AB 50 was the best protection for our children we could afford. They said it was the best bill we could get out of the legislature. They said it was a step in the right direction. What they didn’t say was that AB 50 is a painfully small step in the right direction that came about only because of the mounting pressure of 400,000 signatures on a much tougher Jessica’s Law Initiative. What they didn’t say was that AB 50’s true purpose is to take the steam out of the Jessica’s Law Initiative. What they didn’t express was their desire to keep Jessica’s Law off the November ballot, or, once qualified, to bolster the campaign arguments against it.

Last week the Democrats rejected a Republican effort to substitute AB 50 with AB 231’s Jessica’s Law provisions. Because January 31 was the deadline for passage of bills introduced last year, AB 50 came up again and was debated all day long.

After the first two Democrats rose to speak in favor of AB 50, I rose as the first Republican speaker to ask a question of the bill’s main author, Mr. Leno.

I asked Mr. Leno if the amended language of AB 50 setting 10 items of child porn as the trigger (down from 100 last week) might include 10 CD-ROMs or whether it was 10 images? I knew the answer. Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a Republican colleague of mine, had already conducted research into the case law and provided me with his findings. Under AB 50, it would be possible for an individual to possess nine CD-ROMs, each with hundreds of thousands of images, each image potentially representing an individual child victim, without triggering the proposed law’s sanctions.

With an unsatisfactory answer from Mr. Leno, I then commented on the floor that AB 50, as written, was not tough enough on molesters and did not go far enough to protect our children from sexual predators. Several hours of debate later, Democrats amended the bill again to make just one item of child pornography sufficient to trigger penalties. This astonishing turnabout served to remind all present that legislative debate in an election year can have an impact — when the public is paying attention.

The Democrats then sent the bill onto the Senate with all but one of the Republicans abstaining, viewing AB 50 as a weak alternative to Jessica’s Law.

January 31 was a unique day in the history of the legislature. The Assembly actually debated the merits of a bill as a committee of the whole rather than witnessing the typical whimpering death of common sense provisions after three minutes of discussion in committees hopelessly stacked to the left.