Monday, March 17, 2008

Law would protect children from predators

Stoneham - Over the past few weeks, I have been contacted by many constituents who were shocked and repulsed to read about Corey Saunders, the Level 3 sex offender who raped a 6-year-old boy inside a New Bedford library in January.

According to police reports, Saunders lured the boy to a secluded corner of the library and sexually assaulted him. The boy’s mother was nearby, working on one of the library’s computers, unaware of what was going on just a few feet away from her.

Saunders already had a prior conviction for attempted rape and indecent assault and battery on a 7-year-old, but served only four years in prison and thereafter was briefly confined to the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater. A judge freed Saunders in 2006, despite pleas from prosecutors and testimony from three psychologists that he continued to pose a serious threat to children and was likely to re-offend.

According to recent media reports, the same judge who freed Saunders also ordered the release of at least two other Level 3 sex offenders with extensive prior records. Both men were arrested again last month on new charges.

Few crimes are as horrific as those perpetrated against a child, especially when the crime is of a sexual nature. Unfortunately, when it comes to protecting some of our youngest and most vulnerable residents, Massachusetts’ sex offender laws often fall short of those implemented in other states.

Beginning with the 2005 passage of Jessica’s Law in Florida, 33 states including Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have adopted tougher penalties for dealing with child predators. The law is named after Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a registered sex offender that kept her tied up in a closet for three days before burying her alive.

In response to this heinous crime, Florida lawmakers passed legislation mandating a minimum 25-year prison sentence and lifetime electronic monitoring for adults convicted of lewd and lascivious acts against children under the age of 12. Florida law also treats sexual battery or rape of a child under the age of 12 as a capital felony, punishable by death or life imprisonment without parole.

In Massachusetts, the laws are quite different. Judges are free to decide the punishment for individuals convicted of rape of a child under 18 years old, as there are currently no minimum mandatory sentences in statute. A minimum of five years incarceration in a state prison is all that is required for a second or subsequent offense.

If a weapon is involved, the punishment is tougher, but still not as severe as in other states. A first offense carries a minimum 10-year sentence, while any subsequent offenses call for a term of 20 years to life in prison.

Sen. Scott Brown and Rep. Karyn Polito have been leading the charge to adopt a version of Jessica’s Law here in Massachusetts. Their proposal, filed as House Bill 1688, would expand the penalties for child rape and child pornography while introducing new penalties for sex crimes against children under the age of 12.

If enacted by the Legislature, child rape would be punishable by an automatic prison sentence of 10 years to life for a first offense and 20 years to life for any subsequent offense. If the child is under 12, the punishment would be 20 to life for the first offense and 30 to life for any subsequent offense.

If a weapon is involved, the sentence would be 20 years to life for a first offense, and 30 years to life for any subsequent offense. Penalties would increase to 25 to life if the child is under 12 and 35 to life for repeat offenders.

House Bill 1688 would also establish tougher penalties for individuals convicted of creating, disseminating or purchasing child pornography. Additional penalties would apply if the child is under the age of 14.

An important reform contained in House Bill 1688 is the elimination of judges’ ability to determine whether certain sex offenders must register with the Sex Offender Registry Board. Not only would the bill make registration mandatory, but it would also require all sex offenders convicted of child rape to register for life.

Statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice confirm the need for lifetime registration and closer monitoring of sex offenders. A recent study involving inmates currently serving time in a state prison for rape or sexual assault found that two-thirds of their victims were under the age of 18. Close to 60 percent of these prisoners had committed these crimes against children who were 12 or younger.

According to the Justice Department, many sex offenders are repeat offenders. In fact, those who have served time for sexual assault are seven and a half times more likely than those convicted of other crimes to be re-arrested for sexual assault.

House Bill 1688 also proposes the establishment of Predator-Free Zones in Massachusetts. This provision would prohibit all Level 3 offenders, and all Level 1 or 2 repeat offenders, from living in any state-owned housing or working within 1,000 feet of a school, licensed daycare center, or any other child care facility.

The Senate Republican Caucus has been trying to get a vote on Jessica’s Law, most recently two weeks ago when the Senate debated a bill to revamp Massachusetts’ child welfare system and strengthen the state’s child abuse laws, but the amendment was ruled out of order. Despite the questionable ruling, I remain committed to bringing this issue up for a vote this session.

The Saunders case shows we need to do more in Massachusetts to protect children from sexual predators. If Jessica’s Law had been in effect at the time of his first conviction, Saunders would never have been released from prison, and a 6-year-old boy would not be forced to deal with the trauma of sexual assault.

Thirty-three states have already adopted Jessica’s Law. Massachusetts should not wait until another innocent child is victimized before it does the same.

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