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Child sex bills raising concern

Victims' groups think death penalty, other ideas could backfire

Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News, January 4, 2007

Texas lawmakers who want longer prison terms for sex offenders and possibly even the death penalty for repeat child molesters have run into unlikely opposition from victims' rights organizations and prosecutors.

Opponents say many of the changes, proposed in bills filed for the upcoming Legislature, actually could make it harder to get convictions in jury trials and give sex offenders greater incentive to kill young victims.

Other proposals, including increased electronic monitoring and further limits on where sex offenders may live, give the perception of safety but may actually prompt sex offenders to slip below the radar, opponents say.

"Sex offenders, child molesters, they're the topic du jour in criminal justice this session," said Shannon Edmonds, a former prosecutor and director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. "But just being tough on crime doesn't necessarily advance the ball for public safety."

Sex offenders were a hot topic during the 2006 governor's race, with all four contenders advocating lengthy minimum sentences and saying they were open to the death sentence for repeat child victimizers.

Advocates say Texas needs an equivalent to the Jessica's Laws embraced in Florida and several other states. Named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old who was abducted, raped and murdered by a registered sex offender in 2005, the laws generally carry 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for child-sex offenders, lifetime electronic monitoring and 2,000-foot safety zones around parks and schools.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst featured the laws and included Jessica's dad, Mark Lunsford, in his campaign ads. 

Quelling concerns

Supporters of the tougher laws hope they'll be able to quell
opponents' concerns about unintended effects.

"I think we're all sensitive to the concerns, particularly from those organizations that deal with this on a day-to-day basis," said Robert Black, Gov. Rick Perry's spokesman. "But from the governor's standpoint ... we need to make sure we have tough sentencing and tough laws in place to both deter and punish those who prey on our most vulnerable."

More than 30 bills dealing with sex offenders have been filed in advance of the session, including several from North Texas lawmakers. But while Jessica's Laws appear to be politically palatable in Texas, experts say the opposition from victims' rights groups and prosecutors is an unusual twist. 

"We're definitely not concerned with the intent," said Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. "We're concerned with the unintended consequences."

For example, prosecutors and victims' groups fear heightening sentences will make sex offenders less likely to plead guilty, clogging courts and forcing child victims to take the stand in extended jury trials. Because of strict rules on what evidence can be admitted and credibility questions surrounding child witnesses, sex offender convictions are already difficult to secure, they say. Longer minimum sentences will only make juries more hesitant to convict.

A death penalty provision for repeat child molesters opens another can of worms, Ms. Burrhus-Clay said. Ninety percent of child-sex victims know their offenders, she said; 

"Imagine the pressure the family would experience if grandpa could be given the death penalty." 

Worse, she said, sex offenders might be inspired to kill their victims to prevent the child from testifying.

Question of violence

Advocates for strengthening Texas' sex offender laws disagree that the threat of the death penalty would make child-sex offenders more violent than they already are or would keep witnesses or victims from reporting molesters within the family.

Sex offenders 

"are going to do what they're going to do, anyway,"
said Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Tomball Republican who filed a bill to add the death penalty for repeat child-sex offenders. "If a witness doesn't come forward because it's a family member, that's just an unconscionable act. We're talking about our children here."

And they say the point of the legislation isn't necessarily to make prosecution a cakewalk it's to prevent sex crimes.

If a child-sex offender knows they'll risk the death penalty, 

"maybe these monsters will think twice," said Rich Parsons, Mr. Dewhurst's spokesman. 

"That will give them an incentive not to commit these crimes in the first place," he said.

But it's not just sentencing that has victims' rights groups
concerned. The heightened residency restrictions which have become increasingly common in Texas cities and the GPS monitoring provide a false sense of security, Ms. Burrhus-Clay said.

The technology's not foolproof, she said. Neither are the living restrictions, which won't stop a sex offender from walking into a supposed child-safe area, she said, and are coming under court challenge across the country.

Mr. Perry and Mr. Dewhurst are just as serious about passing a Texas version of Jessica's Laws as they were during their respective campaigns, their spokesmen say and all indications are that support runs deep.

But the Legislature's key criminal justice gurus Sen. John
Whitmire, D-Houston, and Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson say they have deep concerns on the punishment end, particularly as they try to free up space for an ever-swelling prison population.

Mr. Whitmire, who chairs the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee, said 2,900 Texas inmates would be subject to what he called the "crazy notion" of the death penalty for repeat child-sex offenders.

Mr. Madden, chair of the House Corrections Committee, said "some of what's being considered could get us into court," and wonders about the fate of a 19-year-old who repeatedly goes back to a 16-year-old girlfriend. He's filed two sex offender-related bills: one to require GPS monitoring for the highest-level offenders, another to help prosecutors convict child predators without the exact dates of their offenses. 

"We're not soft on sex offenders here," Mr. Whitmire said. "You really have to go cautiously when you're dealing with these statutes."

Victims' groups key

Sen. Bob Deuell, one of several legislators to file a bill including a 25-year minimum sentence and the death penalty for repeat child-sex offenders, said while the goal is prevention, the concerns raised by prosecutors and victims' groups need to be addressed before a law is passed. 

"My goal, of course, is that there be no more victims," the Greenville Republican said. "But I'm open-minded, and I don't have any delusions that mine is the perfect bill. These are the people we really want to do this for, so we need to hear from them." 

Victims' rights groups and prosecutors say they know some type of sex offender legislation is inevitable and that they're ready to work with lawmakers to craft something workable.

Mr. Edmonds said that could include substituting life without parole for a death sentence that likely would face many appeals. While several other states have approved capital punishment for certain child-sex offenses in the last year, he said, a Louisiana death row case is working its way through the courts and will likely include a constitutional challenge. 

"We won't have an answer for several years," he said. "Prosecutors don't want to waste a bunch of time on something that may or may not be constitutional."


More than 30 bills dealing with sex offenders have been filed in advance of the Legislature, many of them mirroring Jessica's Laws that were passed in Florida and other states. 


Require 25-year minimum sentences for first-time child-sex offenders.
Penalize repeat child-sex offenders with the death penalty.
Force certain sex offenders to wear electronic tracking devices for life.
Install sex offender living restrictions of up to 2,000 feet
around parks, schools, bus stops and other child-safe zones.


Victims' rights groups and prosecutors say increasing minimum sentences will make it harder to get convictions in jury trials.
They fear the threat of the death penalty might give sex offenders greater incentive to kill young victims (the only witnesses).
Electronic monitoring and residency restrictions aren't foolproof and might prompt some offenders to evade authorities. 


Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst both made campaign promises about Jessica's Laws and intend to follow through.
North Texas Sens. Bob Deuell, Florence Shapiro and Chris Harris and Rep. Jerry Madden have filed bills on sex offenders.

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