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Commentary: Protection from sex offenders

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opinion Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/all/themes/wctrib_theme/images/social_default_image.png
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Commentary: Protection from sex offenders
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- Like most in the San Diego area -- especially those of us who are parents -- I've spent the last few days processing the events surrounding the murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King with a mixture of sadness, frustration and rage. Mostly rage.

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Naturally, most of this anger is aimed at John Albert Gardner III, a 30-year-old registered sex offender who was charged this past week in King's death.

The more we learn about Gardner's numerous brushes with the law, the more anger builds over a defective system for dealing with sex offenders. Factor in that there might also have been a series of foul-ups by law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and the courts with regard to these earlier cases involving Gardner and your blood begins to boil.

King's disappearance became a national story when 6,000 volunteers turned out to search for her. And now that a body has been found -- one that San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore has said is likely that of the missing teenager -- we might just be at the threshold of a national crusade to fix the broken laws that are supposed to deal with sex offenders.

Gardner, who previously served five years for sexual assault, also has been charged with one count of assault with intent to rape in an attack on a 22-year-old female jogger in December in the same park where King's car was found. And police say he is a person of interest in the case of Amber Dubois, a 14-year-old who disappeared in Escondido, Calif., in February 2009. Nine months later, Gardner registered as a sex offender at an address that was just two miles from the school Dubois attended.

But while prosecutors go about building their case against Gardner, the public should be evaluating the institutions that are charged with protecting them and their families. Not one cog in the wheel should get a pass. And if it turns out that someone did slip up -- by not warning the public that other young women were attacked in those neighborhoods, or by being too quick to offer a plea bargain to Gardner in 2000 when he was charged with molesting a 13-year-old girl, or by not subjecting Gardner to the level of monitoring that he clearly deserved after he was released from prison -- resignations should follow. After all, in this line of work, incompetence and neglect can come at a high price.

In a more perfect world -- or at least a society with a more efficient criminal justice system in which sex offenders get longer sentences and are subject to more thorough monitoring once they get out of prison -- King might be alive today. In fact, if there is any good that can come of this horrible tragedy, it might be in the form of a new political movement across California to strengthen the laws for dealing with sex offenders and close some of the loopholes that now render many of the present statutes useless.

Californians know how to make change. The three-strikes law, where a third serious felony conviction brings a life sentence, was enacted here in 1994. Later, more than 20 states and the federal government adopted their own versions to combat recidivism and limit judicial discretion.

It's time to do it again. There is nothing more fundamental to the survival of a society than its ability to protect its children. Stories like that of Chelsea King remind us that we don't always do a good job at that. In fact, sometimes we fail miserably. When that happens, lives are lost. Others are destroyed. Changing the law is how we can begin to make amends.

As for Gardner's fate, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has said that she hasn't yet decided whether to seek the death penalty because it only "should be used and exercised in those cases that are the most serious."

Don't think about it too long, Madame D.A. Criminal cases don't get more serious than this.

Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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