Punishing predators

June 16, 2006

The General Assembly dealt with more than just electricity rates during this week's special session. In a move that may have mixed benefits, the legislators have come up with a package of harsher requirements and penalties for sex offenders. It includes some mandatory minimum sentences that aren't good policy, and that undermine the entire proposal.

Legislators tried to deal with sex offenders during the regular session, but a House-passed bill that included less-forgiving mandatory minimum sentences stalled in the Senate. Some legislators were rightly worried about taking away a judge's discretion to decide matters on a case-by-case basis and possibly setting back efforts to rationalize other mandatory sentences, particularly in cases involving guns and drug offenders.

The bill that emerged this week, blessed by the Ehrlich administration, tries to have it both ways. The most meaningful provisions offer more community protection by making convicted sex offenders register more often and in person. They would also have to supply DNA samples and annual photos. For the worst offenders, failure to comply with the registration requirements would be a felony instead of a misdemeanor and could include a hefty fine.

The bill also imposes mandatory minimum sentences for the worst offenders, including 25 years for someone over 18 who uses deadly force or the threat of deadly force to rape or commit sexual acts against a victim younger than 13. A similar adult offender who rapes or sodomizes a victim under 13 without using deadly force would be subject to a minimum of five years in prison. Some of these sentences would have been possible under current law, and there is no mandatory minimum if a child under 13 is murdered. That makes the legislators' action seem unbalanced. But in an election year and after a number of murderous sexual assaults against children in other states in recent years, being on record as imposing harsh sentences against sex offenders proved irresistible.

Clearly, there's no reservoir of support for sexual predators. But lawmakers should have resisted the temptation to allow the legal treatment of a particularly unsympathetic class of criminals to set a bad precedent.

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