Kudos to Maria Lagos and the SF Chronicle for a well researched, powerfully written, and well supplemented (with helpful explanations of the law that are usually ignored by journalists) feature on Jessica's Law, California's sex offender zoning restriction adopted by voters in 2006 [no online version until Tuesday]. Proposition 83 made any place within 2,000 feet of parks, schools, or other places habituated by children, off limits to residence by registered sex offenders. The latter include all persons convicted after 2006 of any of a long list of crimes (some of which are helpfully listed in the story, including kidnapping and rape, and annoying or molesting a child among others). The law allows authorities to monitor those under the registration with GPS, but does not require authorities to do so, nor does it authorize the funding to pay for that very expensive equipment. As a result, according to Lagos, the law only really impacts those registered who happen to be on parole or probation, where state or county officials have a mandate (and resources) to monitor them, a status that under current law ends for most registered offenders within five years. In short, the law does not apply to most of the state's actual sex offenders (that is those convicted before 2006 and those who have not yet been convicted, surely a larger number than those convicted after 2006), and only applies to those folks for three or five years; after that has little practical enforceability.
Lagos demonstrates that it is not just the under reach of the law that is fatal to its purported public safety mission. Jessica's law emerged in Florida where a sex offender on probation kidnapped the nine year old girl next door, raping her, burying her alive, where she later died. Because of the outrage, the law focused on where sex offenders live (really the outrage should have been about the failure of probation to notify the Lundfords), but experts see no real link between where sex offenders live and where they can contact their victims. After all, some pedophiles will attempt to contact kids in parks, at school, in church, at the homes of their relatives. in none of these situations is it necessary or even particularly helpful for the sex offender to actually live nearby (only those with the least self control since it will obviously bring great attention to their immediate vicinity). The most visible impact of the law is on the large number of registered persons who because they are on parole or probation are forced to be officially homeless. As the Chronicle illustrates in a graphic with the story, only several small areas of San Francisco, the Presidio (a national park), Lake Merced, and a few bits of Bay side waterfront are outside the ban zone.
So what does Jessica's law do? It protects property values. Economic research has documented that home prices drop measurably in the vicinity of a sex offender. Leigh Linden and Jason Rockoff, in an innovative study (published in the American Economic Review but here's the ssrn version) using registration information to calculate price variations in home sales by proximity to actual sex offenders, found that the home next door dropped 12% in value and the average home in the immediate vicinity was 4% (that may seem small, but given the signal to noise ratio in this kind of research its amazing they found a significant effect). One way of understanding the underlying logic of Jessica's law is that it protects homeowners from the danger that their home will be very close to that of a sex offender.
In several forthcoming articles I argue that home ownership, especially in the inflated form it took (especially here in California) in America from 1980 on, has been a crucial predisposing factor in making Americans prepared to support governing through crime and mass incarceration. Most of the war on crime makes no sense in terms of protecting victims from violent crime (sex or otherwise). If that is what we wanted to do, we would flood inner city neighborhoods with cops and social services at a fraction of the cost of our prisons. But that is not where the home owners are. Prisons, and expensive supplements like Jessica's law, make little sense as crime fighters, they make lots of sense as ways for politicians to reassure homeowning voters that those politicians are doing everything possible to protect their property values.