Monday, March 17, 2008

State lawmakers to file bill strengthening sex offender laws

A bill that would adopt key provisions of Jessica's Law and strengthen other aspects of the state's sex offender laws will be introduced next week by SouthCoast legislators.

Rep. Antonio F. D. Cabral, D-New Bedford, and Sen. Mark C. W. Montigny, D-New Bedford, said they will file a bill that would set a minimum 20-year prison sentence for individuals convicted of raping a child under 16.

Someone convicted for a second offense would be sentenced to 30 years, according to the proposed law.

The legislation also: calls for instituting 10-year probation periods to include GPS ankle bracelets; requires all individuals convicted of sex crimes be classified with the sex offender registry board before their release from jail; and prohibits sex offenders from entering playgrounds, libraries, schools and daycare centers where children are present.

Rep. Cabral said the bill reflects society's obligations to protect children.

"If our judges' decisions don't honor that obligation, we need to step in and make them accountable," he said in written statement.

New Bedford police spokesman Lt. Jeffrey P.Silva was pleased with the legislation.

"We're all very excited at the Police Department to see Senator Montigny and Representative Cabral to take the lead on some much-needed and long-overdue legislation. We commend them for their courage and their initiative."

The legislation is being filed in the wake of outrage that resulted from the Jan. 31 rape of a 6-year-old boy in the downtown public library in New Bedford.

Corey Saunders, a convicted Level 3 sex offender, is charged with raping the child. Mr. Saunders, 26, pleaded guilty in 2000 to molesting a 7-year-old Attleboro boy.

Mr. Saunders was released in December 2006 after a Superior Court judge ruled he was not sexually dangerous; a designation the Bristol County District Attorney's Office had sought in order to have Mr. Saunders civilly committed.

Sen. Montigny said the legislation is not a cure-all, but added it would at least shore up the existing laws to prevent sexually violent criminals from preying on children.

"The rehabilitation of pedophiles is not high on my priority list, but protecting kids is," he said.

"Ultimately, we as a society do a lot of talking about protecting children, but no one can tell me with a straight face, when you look at the laws, that we truly put children's interest first."

He said he expects the bill to face resistance from defense lawyers, but hopes the publicity surrounding recent high-profile sex offender crimes will neutralize the opposition.

"When there's a real anger and public outcry against things, that's when there's a good chance for the law to pass," he said.

With sex crimes against children, Rep. Cabral said judges should not have discretion when sentencing individuals.

"Justice should be swift and the punishment should fit the crime," he said. "Our children are too precious to leave to someone's discretion."

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