Republican senators used their new majority status to muscle a pair of tough sex-offender measures through a committee Monday.
One of the bills would require a life sentence for anyone convicted in adult court of raping a child under the age of 13. The other would put the names of juveniles convicted of rape, forcible sodomy or object sexual penetration on a registry that would be available only to law-enforcement personnel.
Last fall's elections led to the end of four years of Democratic control and left the 40-member Senate evenly divided. Republicans claimed control on Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote on rules giving the GOP the numerical edge in committee assignments, including an 8-7 majority on the Courts of Justice Committee.
On a straight party-line vote, the committee endorsed legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain, of Harrisonburg, to increase the penalty for sexually assaulting a child. The bill is part of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's legislative agenda.
State law currently imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. The Virginia State Police and the attorney general's office both support the increase.
Steve Benjamin, a Richmond criminal defense lawyer who serves as counsel to the committee, said the bill eliminates any judicial discretion when a defendant is convicted based solely on a child's accusation.
“It requires a life term regardless of the quality of proof,” Benjamin said.
The bill now must go to the Senate Finance Committee for approval of the approximately $1.7 million it would cost to keep offenders in prison longer.
Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., of Moneta, said his juvenile sex-offender registry measure is necessary to bring Virginia into compliance with a federal law and prevent the state from losing about $600,000 in grant money. He also said that if Virginia doesn't establish the registry, the state “may be labeled a haven for sex offenders.”
But Mary Devoy, director of Reform Sex Offender Laws of Virginia, said that even with the legislation, Virginia would have to spend an additional $12.5 million on increased state police monitoring of sex offenders to fully comply with the federal law.
She also said juvenile sex offenders are easier to rehabilitate than adults and putting kids on the registry would make it harder for them to get into college or get a job even if they are not likely to ever commit another sex crime.
“Do not brand these children for life,” Devoy said.
Barry Green, former director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, agreed.
“I do think this is going to do more harm than good,” he said.
The committee amended the bill to strike a provision that would have made it retroactive to 2005. However, an amendment to allow an offender to petition the court to get off the registry after 10 years failed on a party-line vote. One Democrat then joined the GOP majority in a 9-6 vote to endorse the measure and send it to the Finance Committee to appropriate the $50,000 estimated for implementation.
A third bill dealing with sex offenders -- this one supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans -- failed on a 7-7 vote in the absence of one GOP senator.
The proposal by Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, would have required the attorney general to annually compile a list of laws governing sex offenders and publish it on the office's website. The state police would be required to distribute the list to registered sex offenders.
Marsden said the bill is intended to keep offenders from inadvertently running afoul of the law.
Devoy offered an example of how that might happen. She noted that the General Assembly last year passed legislation prohibiting registered violent sex offenders from attending a high school graduation off school property. This spring, she said, some registered sex offenders undoubtedly “will be committing a Class 6 felony without even knowing it.”
Sen. Richard Stuart, of Montross, questioned why sex offenders should get special notification when there are even more changes every year affecting law-abiding citizens, who are given no such consideration.