AUGUSTA – After emotional and dramatic debate, the Senate and House agreed Friday on a compromise measure that recommends a 20-year prison sentence for first-time child sex offenders. The bill also mandates probation for life.
The two chambers seemed to agree that stiffer penalties were in order, but disagreed over how to get there.
A Senate version of the bill would have mandated a 25-year prison sentence, but opponents favored the House-backed alternative proposal that sets 20 years as the “expected” sentence for a first-time offender convicted of sexually abusing a child under 12. A judge can vary the sentence from the suggested 20 years, but must spell out in writing why the longer or shorter sentence is merited.
Opponents of the original bill feared that mandated minimum sentencing would lead to more offenders asking for trials and to fewer convictions because already traumatized children would be unable or unwilling to testify.
The debate Friday was often emotional with Sen. Deborah Plowman, R-Hampden, revealing she herself was a victim of sexual abuse when she was a child. She said a victim is a victim for his or her entire life.
“It affects the way they grow up, the way they raise their children, the decisions they make, their ability to interact with their spouse or partner, and it torments you,” Plowman said. “I know. I was one of those children under 12.”
Plowman told her fellow senators that the abuse she suffered has never been far from her mind and led to her seeking counseling to deal with the issues it raised later in life.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the issue has “hit me in the stomach” and has deeply affected him. He said that during a visit to the state’s Computer Crimes Task Force he asked how the analysts could determine the difference between “real” child pornography and that created on a computer.
“On that day, looking at those pictures, I think I came as close to the edge of hell, looking in, as anyone could ever come,” he said.
Other supporters of stiffer sentencing argued that Maine’s current laws are not tough enough and that too many cases are plea-bargained down so that sex offenders end up spending little time in jail.
“Maine has a history of horrendously short sentences served by perpetrators of these horrible crimes, mostly because of plea bargaining,” said Sen. Dean Clukey, R-Houlton, who sponsored the original bill mandating a 25-year minimum sentence.
Clukey’s bill was modeled after Jessica’s Law, named in memory of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was abducted and sexually assaulted before being brutally murdered in February 2005 in Florida. That state adopted the law a year ago that mandates a minimum sentence of 25 years and a maximum of life in prison for first-time child sex offenders.
Some lawmakers in the House who supported Jessica’s Law argued that mandatory sentences would protect more children by getting child sexual predators who usually are repeat offenders off the street and in jail for a longer time.
“More, not fewer victims would come forward if they were guaranteed protection from their abuser for a longer time,” said Rep. Kim Davis, R-Augusta. “By supporting this legislation, we are no longer going to ask our children to carry the burden of guilt and shame.”
But opponents argued that mandatory sentences would have the opposite effect and that children would be forced to testify in cases and be traumatized again.
“This was not a good idea 12 hours ago; it hasn’t improved any in the last 12 hours,” said Rep. Pat Blanchette, D-Bangor. “The very children you want to protect are the very children that would be hurt by mandatory, minimum sentences.”
In testimony offered during an earlier public hearing, Everett Fowle, president of the Maine Prosecutors Association and the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said prosecutors statewide are united in their position that a version of Jessica’s Law in Maine would not be an improvement on current laws.
“I honestly think that with Jessica’s Law it will result in fewer prosecutions, fewer convictions and more sex offenders walking the street,” he said.
The Senate initially approved Jessica’s Law, 19-16. But after the House rejected it 98-46 in favor of the alternative proposal, the Senate reversed itself and went along with the substitute bill, 31-3.
Gov. John Baldacci, who supported mandatory prison time for child sex offenders, is expected to sign the substitute legislation.
Clukey said the compromise was “better than nothing. I will say that, but I wished we could have had a mandatory sentence.”
He said the requirement that offenders serve lifetime probation after they get out of prison was a definite improvement over present law.
Clukey had taken out petition forms to launch a citizen’s initiative to force a statewide vote on the issue in case his bill didn’t make it through the Legislature, but he said after Friday’s votes that he likely would hold off now.
“If this law that has passed does not work, that might be the time to look at a petition,” he said.