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Legislature Didn't Get Jessica's Law Right

The Wichita Eagle, Editorial, December 26, 2006

No bill enjoyed more attention, debate and, frankly, grandstanding from the 2006 Legislature than Jessica's Law. Named after the 9-year-old victim in a heartbreaking Florida case, it was touted as
essential in Kansas to crack down on child predators. That should have meant its problems would be pre-emptively addressed before passage.

But lawmakers had surprisingly few qualms about Jessica's Law, which mandates that an adult who has committed any sex crime against a child 14 or younger spend at least 25 years in prison. 

'On one side we heard, 'Pass the toughest legislation we can and go home and win an election.' 

One the other side, some were saying, 
'Let's be reasonable and realistic,' ' state Rep. Mark Treaster, D-Pretty Prairie, recently said in the Hutchinson News.

Because the tough talk won the day, Jessica's Law already looks like it needs work, if not a do-over. Among its unintended consequences:

It's expected to require 1,880 more prison beds over the next 10 years, at a possible cost of $192.4 million in construction and $63 million a year for operations, according to the Kansas Department of
Corrections. Lawmakers will have to come up with funding for more beds, perhaps via a controversial plan for a private prison, or make the politically difficult decision to free up capacity by cutting
sentences for nonviolent offenders. (Remember the attorney general campaign fight over Senate Bill 323, anyone?) 
Prosecutors and police think Jessica's Law will deter molesters from pleading guilty in favor of taking their chances at trial, where conviction can hinge on the testimony of the fragile young
victims of abuse and the length of sentence can depend on the judge. In Sedgwick County alone, the law could result in 25 percent more jury trials for the three full-time prosecutors of sex crimes. Some prosecutors around the state may charge such offenders with nonsexual offenses to allow for plea bargaining -- undermining the whole point of the law and putting more kids at risk. 
'You're also going to see innocent people going to prison for a long time, because these cases often don't have any forensic or DNA evidence,' state Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville, recently predicted.

As written, Jessica's Law also treats each offender alike, whether he's an adult predator who raped a young child or a 19-year-old who has fondled a 13-year-old. And it prevents pre-1994 convictions from being considered in an offender's criminal history.

Attorney General-elect Paul Morrison plans to watch how prosecutors apply the new law in the new year. In addition to bed space, the Legislature may have to come up with more resources at the state level to help with investigations and prosecutions of child rape cases.

Whatever happens in 2007, the Legislature can learn from Jessica's Law. Every debate about stiffening crime laws should be accompanied by a full consideration of the costs of doing so, in prison beds, court expenses, public safety and more.

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