Wash. child sex offender laws tightened

Those caught loitering at popular kids' spots face felony charge for criminal trespass

July 02, 2006|By MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE

RICHLAND, Wash. -- Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna recognizes that parents can't provide round-the-clock protection for their children.

So when the father of four heard about a sex offender hanging around McKenna's hometown swimming pool, and a child molester accused of kidnapping two Idaho children and later killing one, McKenna knew it was time to toughen Washington's sex crime laws.

The result was a comprehensive package of sex offender bills that addressed everything from stiffer penalties for people caught with child pornography to how often registered offenders must update their address on record.

The bills were adopted by the legislature in March and signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire, and the final two went into effect yesterday.

"I'm very pleased with the improvements that we're making in our state laws, and I think they'll make a difference in protecting our communities from sex offenders and sexually violent predators," McKenna said.

According to statistics from the attorney general's office, there were 18,963 registered sex and kidnapping offenders statewide as of January. Of those, 1,392 were Level III and 124 were for kidnapping convictions.

Level III offenders are considered at high risk to commit another offense in the community, while Level II are considered at moderate risk.

"Every parent is concerned about protecting his or her children, and certainly, as a parent, I think about the risks," said McKenna, who has two daughters and two sons. "We're careful with our kids and know where they are and so forth, but you can't stand next to your kids 24 hours a day. If they want to go down to the community center, I want to know that we don't have pedophiles hanging around trying to strike up a friendship with the kids there."

McKenna said he got a call in early 2005 from the Bellevue parks director asking that employees of facilities where kids gather -- such as swimming pools, day cares, parks and community centers -- be given more authority in confronting known sex offenders. One offender hung around the community center, and another showed up in the changing room at the pool. Employees were concerned that they were there only to get close to kids, he said.

McKenna had the attorneys in his sexually violent predator unit identify needed improvements in the law.

Public interest was then stirred up with the May 2005 kidnappings of Shasta and Dylan Groene from their Idaho home, after their mother, her boyfriend and the siblings' 13-year-old brother were killed. Dylan Groene, 9, was later killed.

Joseph E. Duncan III, a convicted sex offender from Tacoma, Wash., is charged in Idaho with the three slayings at the home and the kidnappings. He will likely face federal charges for the abductions for sexual gratification and Dylan's death after the first case concludes.

"It did focus legislative attention on the need to improve the laws," McKenna said.

The most groundbreaking, yet controversial, piece of the package deals with the sex offenders at gathering spots for vulnerable youth.

The creation of a felony charge for criminal trespass against children is the first in the country, McKenna said. That means pedophiles who are believed to be preying on children in what can now be called a sex-offender-free zone, and are asked by a worker to go away, face jail time if they return to the site, he said.

However, the bill also protects facility workers from liability if a sex offender they do not recognize is on site and ends up doing something criminal.

Franklin County, Wash., prosecutor Steve Lowe said the revisions and the new laws give prosecutors more tools in punishing offenders but said sex crimes have the lowest conviction rate.

"The problem is we have to get them convicted, which is very, very difficult to do. And while I want to be tough on sex offenders, I don't want to make it so tough we don't get convictions," Lowe said.

The difficulty is in getting the victims to report the crimes -- particularly when it involves a family member and not a stranger -- and then cooperate with authorities and agree to testify against the attacker, he said. Prosecutors must also persuade jurors that the defendant is capable of what is being alleged.

"People don't want to believe that folks would do the sorts of things that they're accused of," Lowe said. "It's hard to make that leap when there is a very nice person in front of them."

Another bill separate from McKenna's child protection package sets a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years for convictions of first- or second-degree rape or first-degree child molestation. The prison term applies if the defendant is convicted of an allegation that he or she "groomed" the victim by acting in a predatory manner.

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