Bills Take on Sex Offenders
Some Lawmakers Want Tougher Sentences for Those Who Attack Children
By Joseph Turner
The News Tribune [Washington]
January 13, 2006
When a child is raped, does it matter whether the attacker is a stranger or a father, stepfather, brother, teacher, coach or priest?
To state lawmakers it does.
House Democrats and Republicans are filing a batch of get-tough-on-sex-predator bills to be considered during the 60-day session that began Monday, and the relationship between child victim and attacker appears to be the point on which they differ most.
Rep. Jan Shabro, R-Bonney Lake, and her Republican colleagues want rapists and child molesters to face a minimum of 25 years in prison, regardless of whether they are strangers or a member of the victim's family or otherwise known to the victim.
Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, a retired 30-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, said the Republican measures go too far.
He and fellow Democrats want to get tough on the most violent rapists and child molesters, but they want to give prosecutors and judges some flexibility in cases in which the attacker is not a stranger.
Prosecutors and law enforcement officers are endorsing O'Brien's approach because they are afraid children would be reluctant to report instances of sexual abuse if they knew a family attacker faced 25 years to life in prison.
"We need to strike a balance between punishment and smothering reporting," Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge told members of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee on Thursday. "I would hate to see the number of sex crimes go down because they are going unreported. Unfortunately, when people learn about the penalties, the witnesses can disappear, the testimony changes."
Among those to testify in favor of the Republicans' more hard-line approach was Mark Lunsford, the father of a 12-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom by a convicted sex offender last February.
His daughter, Jessica, was held hostage for three days, raped and suffocated when her abductor buried her alive, Lunsford said.
Her attacker was a janitor at Jessica's school.
"Whether you knew your victim or not doesn't matter," Lunsford said.
He is traveling across the country to urge state lawmakers to follow Florida's lead in passing "Jessica's Law," which calls for the death penalty for child rapists who kill their victims and much longer prison sentences for those who don't.
Jim Hines, a Gig Harbor man who founded a group called "Preserve Childhood Innocence" because a neighbor's rapist was released after a six-month sentence, said his group paid for Lunsford's trip.
Some members donated frequent flier miles and others put Lunsford up for a couple of nights, Hines said.
Washington is among the states where both political parties have made tougher sex offender laws a top priority.
Several victims of sexual assaults also spoke in favor of the Republican proposal and were sharply critical of the controversial Sex Offender Sentencing Alternatives program.
That program allows child rapists who are family members or have a substantial relationship to the victim to undergo counseling and spend little or no time in jail.
Michele Clute of Seattle told the committee that her daughter, then 7, disclosed that the father of a playmate abused her for two years, even though the neighbor threatened to kill her if she told.
"Six years have gone by and (my daughter) still suffers from anxiety disorder and still asks 'Mom, are you sure the doors are locked?' and checks them herself," Clute said.
The neighbor was allowed to enroll in the SOSA program and received a sentence of less than six months for three counts of rape, she said.
"To this day, she is petrified that (the neighbor) will kill her, and she and I both wish he had gone to prison for life," Clute said.
Tom McBride, director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the SOSA program is used for only 10 percent of sex crime prosecutions.
"We want to maximize the number of offenders we put into the system because we think it's safer for the community," McBride said. "Fifty sex offenders in prison for life doesn't protect the community as much as 300 sex offenders in prison for 10 years."
Shabro said the Democrats' approach would get tough on only 5 percent of child sex offenders.
She cited a 2000 report by the U.S. Department of Justice that found only 5 percent of victims between ages 6 and 12 were sexually attacked by strangers and only 10 percent of victims from 12 years old through age 17 were attacked by strangers.
Both Republicans and Democrats also have proposals to keep better track of sex offenders once they are released from jail or prison and harsher punishments if they fail to register with authorities.
Michael Hanby, spokesman for the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said 25-year-to-life sentences for sex crimes would throw the whole sentencing grid out of whack. Some murderers don't get sentences that long, he said.
State officials don't yet have an estimate for how much the longer sentences would cost the state each year. But a new 2,000-bed prison would cost $200 million to build, and each inmate costs the state $26,000 a year to house.
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