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Big Headlines Make for Really Bad Laws

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
When horrific and ugly crimes make headlines, politicians like to seize the opportunity -- to make their own headlines. So when Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced former Stanford student Brock Turner, now 21, to six months in jail -- he served only three months -- for sexually assaulting a woman who was too inebriated to consent to sex in 2015, California lawmakers did not hesitate. The same California legislature that just passed the Restorative Justice Act, which touted alternatives to incarceration, shamelessly passed two tough-on-crime laws. Both are now on the governor's desk.

As Gov. Jerry Brown considers whether to sign the bills, he should look to Minnesota. In 1989, a masked stranger with a gun accosted three young boys riding their bikes on a fall night. The man ordered two of the boys to run away, then handcuffed Jacob Wetterling, 11,who was never seen again. This week, Danny Heinrich, 53, admitted that he sexually assaulted, then killed Wetterling, as he pleaded guilty to a federal child pornography charge for which he will serve at least 20 years.

Wetterling's disappearance spawned the 1994 national sex offender registry, advocated by Jacob's mother, Patty, and signed by President Bill Clinton. The law compels Turner to register as a sex offender, which he did Tuesday after he returned to Ohio. While critics say Persky went easy on Turner because he was a white Stanford student, Turner in fact will be serving a life sentence as a registered sex offender. He not only won't be able to work in a public school, but also will not be able to get a commercial driver's license or even sell insurance. When convicted killers get out of prison, they face fewer restrictions than many convicted sex offenders like Turner.

"Few new public policies have become so widespread so quickly or attracted such unanimous support from across the political spectrum," Eli Lehrer of the libertarian-leaning R Street Institute wrote in National Affairs. Lehrer believes states should cull their registries by, for example, eliminating most juvenile offenders. Better to focus on predators most likely to re-offend. Lehrer also argued "blanket residency restrictions" -- such as California's restrictions on living near schools or day care centers -- "simply do not serve any valid public-safety purpose."


Patty Wetterling herself has come to question the registries' scope. In 2013, she told City Pages, "We've cast such a broad net that we're catching a lot of juveniles who did something stupid or different types of offenders who just screwed up. Should they never be given a chance to turn their lives around?"

"Hard cases make bad law," the saying goes. As if to prove that point, the legislature overwhelmingly approved AB2888, which would set a minimum three years in prison for convicted rapists. Yes, a three-year minimum seems reasonable, but I have doubts given how readily campus rape cases turn into political footballs. (Turner tried that game himself when he blamed Stanford's party culture for his criminal behavior.)

AB701 stipulates that all forms of nonconsensual sex be considered rape. Prosecutors had charged Turner with sexual assault because he digitally penetrated the victim before two passersby intervened. I appreciate the rage behind the bill, but I also want men to know that there are harsher penalties if they rape a woman (or a man) with their penises.

It's good when victims' advocates try to tweak the law to disincentivize brutal crimes. As it is, Patty Wetterling already took care of Turner. These Sacramento bills can achieve only one goal -- headline-grabbing.


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