2020 Election

Kamala Harris Ditched Tough Sex Offender Law

Then-AG Harris halted enforcement that barred sex offenders from living near parks, schools

Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA.), delivers remarks during a campaign event / Getty Images

Kamala Harris stopped enforcing a widely supported sex offender law during her tenure as California's attorney general, allowing sex predators to live near children.

In a confidential legal opinion, Harris ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2015 to stop enforcing residency restrictions that prohibited sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of parks and schools. In doing so, Harris upended a key provision of Jessica's Law, an anti-sex offender law that 70 percent of California voters approved in a 2006 statewide referendum.

Harris lifted the residency restriction for sex offenders after a 2015 state supreme court ruling that relaxed the restriction in San Diego due to the area's high population density. While the ruling applied only to San Diego parolees, Harris stopped enforcing the residency restriction throughout the Golden State, ignoring claims by criminal justice advocates that the residency restrictions could still be enforced in the vast majority of counties. George Runner, one of the sponsors for the ballot initiative for Jessica's Law, said that Harris's decision jeopardized the safety of California kids.

"The head law enforcement officer in California was more concerned about protecting the rights of sex offenders than she was of parents and children," Runner, a former state senator, said.

Harris's leniency toward sex offenders stands in contrast to her reputation as a tough prosecutor who cracked down on criminals, especially sexual offenders. The vice presidential candidate touted on the campaign trail that she pushed to shut down popular website Backpage.com for facilitating sex trafficking—a claim that is receiving renewed scrutiny after revelations that the website actually served as an invaluable tool for law enforcement to catch predators. Harris also defended Jessica's Law when she was running for election as California's attorney general in 2010, smearing her Republican opponent as a "sexist coddler of child molesters" for making dismissive comments about the law.

Neither the Biden campaign nor Harris's office responded to requests for comment.

The residency restriction started when California voters overwhelmingly voted to implement Jessica's Law in 2006, a comprehensive anti-sex crime measure that increased sentencing for offenders and required them to wear GPS trackers after release. California authorities, however, failed to enforce the residency restrictions, allowing sex offenders to live near parks and schools in violation of the law—one study found that roughly 70 percent of sex offenders in San Diego lived in an area that violated Jessica's Law restrictions. In one case, a California district attorney's office told the police to allow a sex offender convicted for owning child pornography to move into a home located right across an elementary school.

The law faced legal challenges from sex offenders who argued that the excessive residency restriction made access to drug treatment and parole officers difficult and led to homelessness. The California supreme court sided with San Diego sex offenders in 2015, finding that the residency requirement stopped the sex offenders from finding housing in densely populated areas where parks and schools are abundant. The ruling emphasized that it extended only to parolees in high density areas.

After the decision, Harris ordered the California correctional system to no longer implement the residency requirement across the entire state, requiring the state to assess whether such restrictions are needed on a case-by-case basis. Harris never released the confidential memo that justified the non-enforcement of the restrictions despite pressure from legislators. Michael Rushford, the president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said that the residency requirement could have been enforced in 50 out of 58 California counties without infringing on the rights of the sex offenders, according to his calculations.

"There are only a few really high density places in California, and they're all along the coast," he said. "And most of the state is rural enough where you can you can enforce this law, which is why the court did not say we're going to ban this [residency requirement] statewide.

Runner said that Harris's decision to apply the San Diego decision all across California was "clearly an overstep" that endangered children.

"If you were a parent of a kindergartner, and all of a sudden, the state places a sex offender across the street from your school, I think it puts you … in a great deal of mental anxiety," he said. "Your child is going to walk across the yard of a sex offender on their way to school."

Update 09/03/20 10:45 AM: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kamala Harris was reelected as San Fransisco's district attorney in 2010. She was elected as California's attorney general.