Conservatives have long attacked San Francisco’s public officials as paragons of evil, for everything from their social liberalism to their adamant opposition to war. But the recent attacks on Assemblyman Mark Leno in blogs and op-ed pages across the country goes beyond the pale, both because of the level of vitriol within them and the deep misrepresentation of what Leno hoped to accomplish with the bill that prompted the outrage. AB 50, the source of the conflict, would strengthen protections against child abuse, representing a compassionate, common-sense way to improve upon previous protection laws for children. Yet Republicans see political gain in linking a gay legislator to sexual predators, and would rather demonize Leno than pass effective legislation to protect kids.
The flare-up over Leno began when Republican members of the Assembly tried to push through a measure that would toughen laws on child-related sex crimes. Leno voted against it for a variety of reasons, prompting a bid to get the laws on a statewide ballot. Bundled together and called ‘Jessica’s Law’ after a young girl molested and murdered in Florida, the Schwarzenegger-backed laws would force the majority of felony sex offenders to be monitored with electrical devices for their entire lives, prohibit all registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of parks and schools, and extend the sentences for multiple sex crimes.
Leno countered with his own bill, AB50, which also extends sentencing for a variety of sex crimes, but eliminates the 2,000 foot residential prohibition. In addition, early stages of the bill included a provision that those convicted of possessing 100 pieces of child pornography or more would be tried for a felony. While that number has since been lowered to just one piece of pornography, the initially high number, along with the elimination of the residency requirement, caused widespread backlash among conservatives nationwide.
It’s hard to believe the reasons for conservative’s anger lie in the merits of Leno’s bill. For starters, AB50 includes many of the same sentence-strengthening provisions Republicans pushed, and represents a major step towards better protecting children from sex offenders. The bill includes an increase in the parole period of those that sexually abuse children, makes kidnapping kids punishable with life without parole, and has the support of the California Peace Officers Association and the California District Attorneys Association.
The bill also creates specialized sex offender treatment programs designed to stop offenders from repeating their mistakes, and earmarks $20 million to implement county and regional Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement (SAFE) teams to make sure offenders get caught.
Because of these facts, Republicans have thrown up two straw men in the hopes of getting voters to approve their proposal and painting Democrats as weak on crime. Even more distressing – they appear to be aiming their attacks at a gay legislator in the hopes of framing the debate as a battle over ‘family values.’
For starters, Leno’s removal of the 2,000 foot clause doesn’t show weakness on crime – it shows legislative smarts based on an awareness of how other child protection programs are performing across the country and a concern for rural areas throughout California.
Iowa recently passed similar 2,000 foot residential restrictions, which quickly resulted in the Iowa County Attorneys Association stating that the restrictions do “not provide the protection that was originally intended,” and that “the cost of enforcing the requirement and the unintended effects on families of offenders warrant replacing the restriction with more effective protective measures.”
They went on to site a variety of major problems with the restrictions, including the following:
• research shows no link between such residency laws and reducing child-related sex crimes
• the law presents the public with a false sense of security
• the law has caused homelessness among some sex offenders, and caused other offenders to lie and say they are homeless to avoid the requirement
• the law affects where sex offenders spend the night, but not who they come in contact with.
In addition to the problems with the Iowa law, many rural communities point
out such restrictions would push most sex offenders into rural areas, because cities like San Francisco possess such a high density of schools and parks that no home would be more than 2,000 feet from one or the other.
As for Leno’s original proposal to place the number of pieces of pornography punishable as a felony at 100, the number’s origin reveals a great deal about the true nature of conservatives’ attack on Leno.
Orange County Assemblyman Todd Spitzer originally offered the number of 100 to Leno, a number he claimed would satisfy his Republican colleagues and help gain their support of AB50. Soon after Leno capitulated and placed Spitzer’s provision into the bill, Spitzer changed his tune, claiming to the media that the number was high enough to prove Leno supported child pornography and was weak on crime.
Spitzer’s ploy reveals conservatives want to use AB50 and Mark Leno as a political tool to attack Democrats as anti-child, pro-crime, and most importantly, out of step with conservative’s so-called ‘family values.’ Underneath it all – perhaps most revealingly in a conservative blogger’s use of a picture of Leno with a rainbow necklace alongside a rant about his supposed support of child molesters – is an obvious attempt to connect the gay legislator with criminal sexual behavior.
This behavior on the part of Republicans should ultimately do them more harm than good. To try and paint Mark Leno as anti-child when he’s been the strongest fighter to stop Ellis Act evictions, one of the leading causes of the displacement of families in San Francisco, will ring hollow to anyone paying attention to state politics.
To try and paint LGBT people as supporting sex crimes against children should both energize the queer community against conservative forces and strengthen alliances with other groups who realize what a sick attack this is.
And to try and paint Leno as soft on crime when he’s trying to provide an intelligent alternative to a Republican-backed bill destined to create more problems than it solves is ridiculous.
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