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Clueless? 

Accusations fly that a state rep is out of the loop on a sex-offender bill

It's tough making a case against a sex-offender bill when a number of victims' advocates, judicial figures and law-enforcement officials enthusiastically support it.

Yet that's exactly what state Rep. Linda Lopez, of Tucson, did with Senate Bill 1228--and many people say she had no idea what she was talking about when she claimed the legislation would imperil children.

The bill passed the state House and Senate with hardly a peep of opposition, but Lopez, a Democrat, urged Gov. Janet Napolitano to veto it. On April 16, the governor did just that.

Senate Bill 1228 would have changed Arizona law so that only Level 3 sex offenders--those determined to have a high likelihood of recidivism--who have been convicted of a dangerous crime against children (DCAC) and are on probation would be tracked using a GPS device.

Currently, anyone on probation with a DCAC conviction, sexual or not, must wear a GPS device. The definition of a dangerous crime against a child includes everything from an act of murder to assault to molestation perpetrated by an adult against a victim who is younger than 15. With that definition in mind, supporters of SB1228 have said some people who shouldn't be monitored are being monitored, and that's a waste of money.

"There are some people who are not even sex offenders who are required by the current legislation to be on GPS, because there was some inadvertent broadness in the original bill," said Cari Gerchick, communications director for the Arizona Supreme Court.

According to advocates of SB1228, most physical abusers, for example, don't require GPS monitoring, because their victims aren't being pursued or stalked in the same way a sex offender would stalk a child by hanging out in places where kids gather.

Thus, according to Gerchick, only Level 3 sex offenders would have been required by SB1228 to submit to GPS monitoring--but probation officers and the courts could have ordered Level 1 or 2 sex offenders to submit to monitoring at any time if they thought it prudent.

"I think the purpose behind the bill is to use the resources where they're most needed," Gerchick said. "It's a balance between public safety and a wise use of public resources."

A 13-member committee was set up last year to assess the DCAC tracking law, and it came up with the provisions that made their way into Senate Bill 1228.

Sen. Jim Waring is a Phoenix Republican who sponsored both SB1228 and the previous law creating the GPS tracking program of DCAC convicts, with annual funding of $1.5 million.

Waring emphasized that the head of the Department of Corrections is a member of the DCAC committee.

"We want to make sure that we're not wasting the public's money," he said. "With $1.5 million, you can do some good. But, you know, next year, more prisoners are going to be released."

To illustrate his point, Waring recounted a story he was told by a female probation officer about a mother who threw scalding hot water on her child. The woman was incarcerated for about four years, and then released on probation with a GPS device, he said.

"It's a crime against a child, obviously--a terrible crime," Waring said. "She served less than I think she should have, but four or five years is still a healthy stretch for a first-time offender. (The probation officer's) point was: What does putting a GPS locator device on this person, what good does that do? They're not going to go to a park and throw scalding hot water on some other child, just randomly. That doesn't make sense. And they're not going to be allowed to be alone with their own child, so they're not going to abscond."

Projections on GPS monitoring costs run between $4 and $12 a day, with price estimates on the devices themselves ranging from the low hundreds to, according to Lopez, about $1,200.

A number of law-enforcement and sexual-assault agencies supported Senate Bill 1228, including the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police and the Arizona State Fraternal Order of Police. Chief adult probation officers throughout the state also supported the measure, according to Dave Byers, director of the Arizona Supreme Court's administrative offices.

Yet Byers noted in a letter that some lawmakers had misconstrued its provisions.

"Apparently, a few legislators had the idea that Senate Bill 1228 prohibited judges from places (sic) Level 1 and 2 offenders on GPS; this is not correct," Byers wrote in the missive urging Napolitano to sign the bill.

Lopez appeared to be one of the legislators operating under that assumption.

"I'm worried that we're going to try to save money at the expense of a child, and I just don't want to do that," she said.

She offered an anecdote in which probation officers in Cochise County discovered a Level 1 sex offender who, under current law, was required to wear a GPS device and had allegedly been found stalking a 6-year-old.

"That was a real specific instance of the importance of not limiting it to Level 3 offenders," she said.

However, Elizabeth Houde, CEO and president of the Arizona Sexual Assault Network, slammed Lopez for going before the media with two probation officers at a Wednesday, April 11, press conference.

"She was completely misinformed," Houde said. "She really spoke out of turn on this, and that was too bad."

In a letter supplied to the media, Houde wrote that Lopez's actions "deliberately put the Arizona Sexual Assault Network in a difficult position." Houde added that she was familiar with SB 1228, that the bill was consistent with state and national research on GPS tracking and that it didn't preclude the ability of probation officers to monitor any sex offenders.

Waring, too, didn't mince words about Lopez's impromptu press conference, telling the Weekly during a conversation that it was "a farce."

"I don't think Linda Lopez understands what the bill does, and it's unfortunate that she's trying to kill a perfectly good bill without ever speaking to me, because I still haven't ever talked to her about this," Waring said. "As far as I know, our staff, who put it together, hasn't, either."

As noted, Napolitano nixed the bill, writing in a veto letter that she was unwilling to sign it into law until a committee investigation turned up "compelling evidence" it wouldn't hurt children.

After the veto, Waring e-mailed the Weekly, claiming "politics ruled the day." He said an override probably isn't a possibility, despite the lack of opposition when the bill was passed, because he thought Democrats would stand with the governor.

"There was no way she wasn't going to support Rep. Lopez in this case, even thought there is nothing to support Linda's views," he wrote. "I can't believe that one uninformed member, supported by two citizens totally repudiated by their boss, can veto a bill requested by all the courts, law enforcement, etc. That's not a good sign."

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