Monday, February 27, 2006

Showdown in the Senate: Fireworks to Erupt Tomorrow Over Sex Offenders

Following an 8-7 vote today in the West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee to reject a GOP alternative to Governor Manchin's sex offender bill, SB 205, the full Senate will likely vote on the same proposal tomorrow.

SB 205 is the Senate version of HB 4039, the pathetically weak excuse of a bill I dissected earlier on this page. SB 205 is very narrowly drafted and only applies to "sexually violent predators," who are legally defined as people convicted of a sexually violent offense or found not guilty by reason of mental illness, mental retardation or addiction and who have a "mental abnormality or personality disorder'' that makes them likely to commit more sexually violent crimes.

SB 276, the Protect Our Children Act, sponsored by Senator Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, all other Republican senators, and 3 Democratic senators, would substantially increase the penalties for a wide variety of felony sexual offenses and impose better tracking & monitoring of convicted sex offenders than the Governor's bill. Today, Senator Russ Weeks, R-Raleigh, proposed to incorporate this bill into the current bill. The committee rejected that motion on an 8-7 vote.

The urgency of Senate action on this issue increased today as HB 4039 ran aground in the House. The House Finance Committee reported this bill "without recommendation," indicating that the committee neither approved of the bill nor wanted to block a floor vote on the bill. The full House then recommitted the bill to the Finance Committee. As on the parental notification for minors' abortion, the Senate has been called to action after the House dropped the ball.

Why West Virginia legislators cannot get their act together and pass Jessica's Law is just beyond me. What is so difficult about passing a 25 years to life mandatory prison sentence for adults who sexually assault or sexually abuse children under the age of 12? Our legislators have long had a strange phobia of any bills that would tend to increase the state's prison population. They refuse to build any new prisons and refuse to repeal the law forbidding the housing of state inmates in out-of-state prisons.

The first obligation of government to the people is to protect us from our foreign enemies and domestic crime. In state government, that means criminal justice. In 2004, the state's general revenue budget exceeded $3 billion. Of that, about $330 million was spent on the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. This department includes the National Guard, the State Police, the Division of Corrections, Regional Jails, and other related agencies. The first priority of government seems to be consistently treated as one of the last by West Virginia's Ruling Party.

Tomorrow's Senate vote become more dramatic as the AP reports this evening of a public statement by governor's counsel Carte Goodwin publicly defending the current bill as the administration's desired approach. Goodwin said the bill was narrowly tailored to address sexually violent predators and that this was the area where the Governor desires to act at this time.

Those of you who have been watching the nationwide debate over sexual offenders and Jessica's Law probably already know that "sexually violent predators" comprise a very small percentage of all sexual offenders who are convicted of sexually violent offenses. The vast majority of sex offenders, including pedophiles who prey upon young children, do not fall into the legal definition of a sexually violent predator.

West Virginia needs a comprehensive approach to toughening its sex offender laws, not the empty shell proposed by the Governor and seemingly rubber-stamped by the Ruling Party legislators. Tomorrow, the Senate will have a chance to act. On November 7, the voters will render their verdict.