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Child abuse bill provides vote-switch case study involving state legislators

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POSTED October 24, 2012 9:05 p.m.


SACRAMENTO . (AP) — The official voting record makes it appear that state lawmakers were eager to wade into the politically sensitive debate about whether certain people listed as child abusers when they were minors should be given a second chance.

The official recorded vote in the California Assembly shows that 64 of the 80 lawmakers voted "yes" on AB1707, which would allow people listed on a central child abuse registry as minors to eventually have their name removed.

In fact, the legislation actually passed by just a single vote in August, with more than one-third of Assembly members opting not to cast a vote when the bill was debated. Instead, they added their names after the issue had been decided.

AB1707 provides a case study of vote changing in the Assembly. It attracted 36 vote additions and three after-the-fact vote reversals on both Assembly floor votes, more changes than almost any other piece of legislation this year.

Democrats appear to have been reluctant to endorse the bill until they were sure of its passage, while Republicans appear to have been wary of incurring anger from the law enforcement community.

"Tough-on-crime posturing always makes issues like this tough to put out there," said the bill's author, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

A yearlong analysis by The Associated Press found that lawmakers in the Assembly took advantage of the practice more than 5,000 times during the nine-month session that ended in August. Many of the bills that attracted the most changes this year dealt with politically divisive topics such as taxes, health care and crime.

The social welfare groups that supported Ammiano's AB1707 said the bill would level the playing field for foster children, who often end up on the state's child abuse registry for fistfights or even "playing doctor" when they are young because their caretakers have a legal obligation to report all incidents, no matter how trivial.

The bill, eventually signed into law by the governor, requires the state Department of Justice to erase names from the child abuse registry after 10 years if the person listed committed the offense when they were less than 18 years old and had no subsequent incidents.

The California District Attorneys Association and Police Chiefs Association opposed the bill and said it would make it harder for law enforcement to keep track of abusers.

Martha Matthews, directing attorney for the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel Law Center's Children's Rights Project, said she expected an uphill battle on the bill because lawmakers' aversion to political risk can make it difficult to corral enough votes to pass legislation that helps foster children.

"My sense is once Assembly members understood the bill, they were like, 'Of course,' " she said. "The problem is the next time the Assembly member has to run for office, they maybe don't want to be characterized as being soft on child-abusers."

Of the lawmakers who amended their votes on AB1707, only Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin, responded to a request for comment.

"After taking a closer look at the language and with the input of law enforcement, I chose to change my vote to make sure children are protected," she said in a statement.

Assembly members appeared similarly skittish when the bill returned from the Senate in August for a final vote. Lawmakers sent the bill to the governor by a bare majority, although nearly two dozen lawmakers added on to the bill after its fate was determined.

Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, said he could not recall why he twice added his vote on AB1707 after it had already passed but said he often holds off on voting while he asks his staff for more information.

"We are fortunate in the Assembly that we have until the end of that day's floor session to cast an informed vote," he said in a statement.


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