At the beginning of 2010, Nathan Fletcher was a first-term assemblyman from a marginalized party with little to show for his time in Sacramento. One name soon changed all that.

That February, a registered sex offender murdered Chelsea King, 17, who was jogging in a Rancho Bernardo park. King’s parents and Fletcher, then a Republican, pushed to increase penalties for sex offenders. A little more than six months after King’s death, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Chelsea’s Law.

“Because of Chelsea, California children will be safer,” Schwarzenegger said at the time. “Because of Chelsea, this never has to happen again.”

The law catapulted Fletcher to prominence, setting up his San Diego mayoral bids in 2012 and the city’s current special election. In both races, Fletcher, now a Democrat, has promoted his authorship of Chelsea’s Law. Just last week, the city’s police union cited the law in its endorsement of Fletcher.

More than two years after the law’s passage, understanding how it has changed the landscape for sex crimes remains difficult.

The law’s signature reform doesn’t get used a lot. A one-strike life imprisonment for violent and traumatic sex crimes on children has only been wielded once in San Diego County, a reflection, a local prosecutor said, of the law’s focus on the worst offenders and defendants’ desire to plea bargain rather than face life terms.

Costs, too, are hard to calculate. There’s already been disagreement over paying for the expanded monitoring and treatment for lower-level sex offenders required under the law.

The law made major changes to sex offender treatment and monitoring. But researchers will need years of data to examine its effects on reducing repeat offenses.

Fletcher said the law’s many provisions mean it will take time for all its impacts to become clear.

“I still say it’s a tremendous net positive,” Fletcher said.

Targeting the Worst Cases

In March 2012, a San Diego County jury convicted Christopher Michael Raines of raping his 22-month-old daughter while he was supposed to be watching her for the day. Before Chelsea’s Law, Raines could have received a maximum 15 years to life in prison. He received 25 to life under the new law, meaning he has to serve a decade longer before being considered for parole.

Raines was the only person in the county convicted under the one-strike provision for violent and traumatic sex crimes against children in Chelsea’s Law, the most high-profile reform ushered in by the measure.

But others in the county have seen longer sentences than they would have previously because Chelsea’s Law also increased prison terms for other violent sex crimes. (No database for Chelsea’s Law prosecutions exists statewide, so we just took a closer look at San Diego County.)

Local prosecutors have charged 77 defendants under Chelsea’s Law, according to statistics from the district attorney’s office. Chelsea’s Law extended the prison terms for 27 of those defendants. Twenty three times the law ultimately didn’t make a difference in sentencing and 23 cases are still pending. A jury found one defendant not guilty and prosecutors dismissed another case before trial.

The threat of longer prison terms under Chelsea’s Law, said Chief Deputy District Attorney David Greenberg, allows prosecutors to get more stringent plea deals.

“This helps us to achieve justice while at the same time minimizing the trauma for victims not to have to come in and testify,” said Greenberg, who supervises the district attorney’s sex crimes and human trafficking division.

Still, Chelsea’s Law affects few accused criminals in San Diego County. Prosecutions under the law amounted to about 12 percent of the 289 sex crime cases charged in 2012, Greenberg said.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, said Brent King, Chelsea King’s father. The law’s goal, he said, was to target the worst cases of violent sex crimes. The Kings’ foundation, Chelsea’s Light, found that 11 defendants received 25 years-to-life sentences under Chelsea’s Law in the past year in San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“We’re not saying we hope 1,000 people get locked up,” King said. “We hope it’s being used effectively.”

Defendants Charged Under Chelsea’s Law in San Diego County

Bucking the Sentencing Trend

For decades, California legislators added new, longer and complex sentencing laws, typically in response to the kind of crime making news at the time.  In the late 1980s for instance, the state increased sentences for murders where the shooter was inside a car.

“It was so complicated that no one could understand the sentencing scheme without a computer program,” said Michael Vitiello, a law professor at the University of the Pacific and an expert on state sentencing laws.

In recent years, however, the pendulum has shifted toward more lenient sentencing. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population after finding overcrowding violated inmates’ constitutional rights to health care. Gov. Jerry Brown created a program to shift lower-level offenders from prisons to county jails to cut costs. And last November, voters approved a measure weakening the state’s three-strikes law.

By increasing sentences, Chelsea’s Law bucked the trend.

Still, the law’s limited use in sentencing keeps it from burdening the state’s criminal justice system, Vitiello said. But that also means, he said, any broad claims that Chelsea’s Law has made a huge public safety impact don’t hold up, either.

“It’s grandstanding,” Vitiello said.

Fletcher said that perspective minimizes changes to sex offender laws beyond increased sentencing. The state now treats sex offenders and evaluates their risk of reoffending better that it did before, he said.

“Could you have politically have done this big, broad law that swept everyone up?” Fletcher said. “I guess you could have, but it wouldn’t have made it right and it wouldn’t have ensured a commitment to public safety.”

Unclear Costs

When Brown first released his state budget plans in January 2012, he left something out that Fletcher couldn’t stand for.

Brown was going to allow counties to delay for two years Chelsea’s Law provisions calling for greater sex offender monitoring and treatment. The move would have saved the state money it needed to reimburse counties for the program. After lobbying from Fletcher and the King family, Brown put the money into the budget, where it’s remained.

“Making sure Chelsea’s Law was implemented was a priority,” Fletcher said. “When there was an issue I was willing to go engage, work, get the funding put back.”

But the funding dispute amplifies the fact that implementing Chelsea’s Law cost money – it’s just hard to figure out how much.

The state’s legislative analyst looked at an early version of the bill and estimated costs would reach tens of millions of dollars annually within the first decade, and at least in the low hundreds of millions of dollars annually after several decades.

Fletcher said he was sensitive to financial concerns and pointed to a provision he later added that reduced penalties for petty theft crimes. A state Senate analysis said that change could save up to $32 million a year.

Now that the bill has become law, costs still aren’t clear. The amount of money the state would have saved had Brown gone through with his original plan is defined in budget documents only as “significant.”

The law did usher in big changes to how the state and counties monitor and treat sex offenders. Probationers and parolees now have to undergo regular polygraph examinations, and treatment centers must go through a state certification program. Treatment providers now measure potential recidivism with a tool that examines how behavioral changes affect risk.

These reforms should improve sex offender management and treatment, said San Diego County Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins, who also serves on a state panel on the issue. But researchers will need years of data understand its effects.

“To really do a solid, empirically based study of Chelsea’s Law it would take some time,” Jenkins said.

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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