Vt. official meets resistance on sex offender crackdown plan
Cites slaying of girl to show need
MONTPELIER - Seizing on the case of slain 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie yesterday called on lawmakers to convene in a special session next month to pass new laws cracking down on sex offenders, proposing a 25-year mandatory minimum prison term and other measures.
But his calls got a cool reception, with lawmakers saying the issue is too complicated for such quick action and a victims' rights group saying that long mandatory minimums can discourage suspects from entering into plea bargains and scare victims out of coming forward.
"Long mandatory sentences make us feel really good, but they really do very little to keep people safe from sex offenders," said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Bennett, of Braintree, was found dead July 2, a week after she disappeared in Randolph. Her uncle, convicted sex offender Michael Jacques, 42, is charged with kidnapping her.
Saying Vermont should do more to keep child sex predators off the streets, Dubie issued a list of proposals that includes, in addition to the 25-year minimum:
"It is the highest responsibility of government to protect those most vulnerable from those most dangerous," said Dubie, a Republican who is up for reelection this year.
Governor Jim Douglas, who last week said he wouldn't call a special session until there is agreement among lawmakers about the bills to be voted on, reiterated that position through his spokesman.
Asked whether Douglas favors 25-year minimums, Jason Gibbs said, "His view is we need to have a conversation about how we limit the judiciary discretion that has the unintended consequence of releasing dangerous offenders into our communities. A discussion of enhancing mandatory minimums is one he's prepared to have."
Outgoing House Speaker Gaye Symington, a Democrat challenging Douglas in this year's gubernatorial race, pointed the finger at the incumbent governor for problems with enforcing against sex offenders.
"The decision by the Douglas administration to release convicted kidnapper and sex offender Michael Jacques from probation seven years early and to leave him without supervision has raised serious questions about whether the Department of Corrections is adequately protecting the public," Symington said in a statement.
She said she saw no need for a special legislative session to draft new laws until current ones are enforced better. "It is much more important right now to find out why this convicted sex offender was set free and fix the problems that led to his early release so that we don't have a repeat of this failure," the speaker said.
According to Tronsgard-Scott, a high percentage of sexually abused children know their attackers or are related to them, which could make them shy away from reporting it if they believe doing so would lead to a long prison term.
Moreover, about half of child sex abusers are children under 18, and long mandatory sentences won't deter them since the sentences usually aren't imposed on juvenile offenders, she said.