Our View | Sex Offender Law: Fight or Punt? City Choices Limited

By The Signal Editorial Board

Rock. Santa Clarita. Hard Place.

That about sums up the situation the Santa Clarita City Council was in this past week, when council members faced a staff recommendation to repeal a city ordinance restricting the residency of registered sex offenders.

Regrettably, the council members had only two choices: repeal the ordinance, or face a very long, costly and most likely losing legal battle. 

What does this mean for you and your family? In a nutshell, it means registered sex offenders can pretty much live wherever they want. There are a few exceptions. For example, the state Department of Corrections can still prohibit a sex offender from living within a half-mile of a school, but only if their victim was a child.

But otherwise, rapists, child molesters and serial flashers in trench coats are free to live wherever they want.

Across the street from a public park, where small children play? Yep. Green light.

Next door to an elementary school? You got it — with, of course, the aforementioned exception. Just make sure you pay the rent on time.

Church? Library? Day care center? Check, check, and check.

Yet, the city didn’t have much choice.

At issue was the city’s ordinance, enacted after the 2006 passage of California’s Proposition 83 — approved by a whopping 70 percent of the voters — that facilitated restrictions on where registered sex offenders could live.

The Santa Clarita ordinance, in short, stipulated that no sex offender could live within 2,000 feet of local parks, schools, libraries or day care centers.

Sounds reasonable, right? However, Prop. 83, known as Jessica’s Law, almost immediately faced legal challenges from attorneys who stood up for the rights of sex offenders versus the safety and security of families like yours.

By 2015, the California Supreme Court had ruled such restrictions unconstitutional. (It bears noting that the Jessica’s Law cases did not impact Megan’s Law, which requires the addresses of registered sex offenders to be made available to the public.)

While we understand that sometimes the courts must apply constitutional principles to protect the rights of the few from the whims of the many, in the case of Prop. 83 the court has protected the few — the sex offenders — while putting the many at risk.

In the aftermath of the 2015 ruling, attorneys like Janice M. Belluci started targeting cities that had imposed residency restrictions on sex offenders. Belluci, who has filed at least 34 such lawsuits, sued Santa Clarita on behalf of an unnamed “John Doe” client.

Belluci told the city she would drop the case, if the city would drop its residency restrictions.

That brought us to Tuesday night. First, we thank the council for pulling the item from the consent calendar. This is the sort of item that should at least get the benefit of a discussion before the council vote. In that discussion, there were two major topics of note:

First, the Sheriff’s Department hasn’t been enforcing Santa Clarita’s sex offender residency restrictions for the past eight years. So, if you thought you were living in a city where sex offenders can’t live within 2,000 feet of your kids’ schools, guess again. They’ve been free to do so since 2011, regardless of what the city ordinance said.

We understand the rationale for non-enforcement. The legal environment clearly pushed in that direction. But boy, if our memory serves correctly, that little bit of non-enforcement sure happened quietly.

And second, as Councilman Cameron Smyth noted in the discussion, the city faced quite a dilemma: You could repeal the ordinance, and avert the lawsuit. Or, you could fight the good fight, perhaps taking appeals as far as possible, spending who knows how many tax dollars on legal fees, and still, most likely, lose.

Sometimes a “good fight” is worth fighting. And sometimes, you punt. Weighing the factors on both sides, we don’t blame the council for punting. We share in their frustration, because this feels like a decision that was not in the best interests of local families. 

That’s the California we live in: Sacrificing the will of the voters, local control and the safety of our children, while protecting the rights of sex offenders.

Does it have to be that way? While we understand that the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station is taking additional measures to keep local sex offenders honest — like routine residency checks — we also implore our city leaders to explore other potential options. 

Here in Santa Clarita, we must devise new measures that can be taken to protect our community’s children — where California won’t.  

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