Tuesday, April 25, 2006

CRIMINAL JUSTICE - Sex-Predator Laws Widen State Powers

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By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post
Tuesday, April 25, 2006; Page B05

RICHMOND, April 24 -- Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Monday signed a raft of bills passed by the General Assembly that will toughen the punishment and monitoring of sex offenders.

The new laws, which will take effect July 1, will increase the mandatory sentences for those found guilty of sex crimes against children younger than 13. For both first-time and repeat sex offenders, the mandatory minimum sentence will be 25 years in prison, up from five years.

The legislation will also broaden Virginia's powers to monitor the most violent sex offenders through civil commitment. Another measure will tighten up the state's Sex Offender Registry, which tracks the names and whereabouts of released felons. Virginia adds about 1,100 people to the registry each year.

"These new tools will help our police and prosecutors track, treat and punish those who pose a threat to our children and others in our communities," Kaine (D) said.

The changes were spurred in part by a 2005 review by the Virginia Crime Commission, which found that the Sex Offender Registry contained incomplete or inaccurate information. State police said last year that between 8 and 14 percent of the violent sex offenders required to register are out of compliance on any given day for such things as failing to provide a current address. Also, the registry sometimes lacks their photos.

Virginia is one of 17 states with a civil-commitment law that calls for sex offenders deemed too dangerous for release to be confined in a treatment center after they have served their prison sentences.

Virginia's 12 bills on sentencing and monitoring followed the example of Florida, which last year passed some of the toughest legislation in the nation, known as Jessica's Law, in memory of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who last year was kidnapped and slain allegedly by a convicted sex offender.
Provisions in the proposed state budget would add money for additional probation officers and state troopers to monitor sex offenders.

Other legislation signed by Kaine would create unsupervised court probation for life and provisions to prohibit offenders convicted of certain sex crimes against children from working on school, day-care or other child-minding properties and from living within 500 feet of schools and child day-care centers.

The legislation will cost the state $40 million during the next two years.

"It's not just good policy but at the end of the day will actually save lives and keep young people safe," said Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who made toughening such laws a centerpiece of his campaign last year.

The bill-signing ceremony was attended by several people whose family members have been victims of sexual violence. Among them was Janet Pelasara, the mother of Taylor Behl, a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman and Vienna resident who was found dead last year.

Lawmakers are still debating proposals to finance an expansion of the program. Some House delegates want the state to borrow about $62 million to build a 300-bed facility for sex offenders. They say the Senate has failed to match their commitment to the program.

"This year, the House stands alone in continuing its commitment to these reforms by funding more beds for the civil-commitment program and strengthening the Sex Offender Registry," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "Regrettably, the current Senate spending plan only includes funds for a program that will not provide these stringent protections."

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the Crime Commission, said that the Senate is willing to finance whatever bed space is needed.

"If we need 200 beds, we'll fund 200 beds," he said. "If we need 300 beds, we'll fund 300 beds. I'm not sure why they're stuck on this issue."


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