Saturday, March 04, 2006

I've Been Accepted!

Today has been a great day for me.

Today, I learned that I have been accepted to the WVU College of Law, Class of 2009.

Letter to the Editor Re: Sex Offender Bill

Tuesday, after the Senate Judiciary Committee had voted to gut SB 205, the sex offender bill, I wrote a letter to the editor (scroll to bottom of page after link opens) of the Morgantown Dominion-Post condemning West Virginia's apparent inaction on cracking down on rapists and child molesters.

Wednesday, the full Senate unexpectedly adopted an amendment by Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, that substituted a tougher GOP bill for the gutted bill that had emerged from committee. While 8 members of the committee voted to gut the bill, only 3 voted against the Sprouse amendment on the floor; 2 other senators who are not members of the Judiciary Committee, Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wyoming, and Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, supported the committee's gutted bill.

Thursday, my letter ran in the paper at the same time the passage of a tough sex offender bill by the Senate was being reported. It sure seemed like I had misjudged the prognosis of this bill.

Friday, however, many of my fears began to materialize. The Manchin Administration and Democratic legislative leaders are now apoplectically whining and moaning about this bill's potential annual cost to the state of $91 million to $162 million to house the extra prison population ($91.5 million) and house & treat sexually violent predators who are subject to civil commitment ($61.9 million). The Ruling Party cannot see this issue for what it is: an issue of right and wrong and protecting the women and children of West Virginia from rapists and child molesters who are currently eligible for probation and no jail time under current law.

Ruling Party Leaders Launch Full-Court Press to Sink Senate GOP Sex Offender Bill

What started as a trickle yesterday has become a torrent. Leaders of the Ruling Party from both the legislative leadership and the Manchin Administration have declared war on the current version of SB 205 and are now trying to pull all the stops to sink any bill that is little more than a couple of dozen pages that seek to make people think a problem is being addressed when it is not.

Yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall and supporter of keeping child rapists eligible for probation, launched the opening public salvo of a last-ditch effort to torpedo the bill by bemoaning its potential annual cost to the state of up to $162 million. Later in the day, a variety of officials from the Manchin Administration joined the public hand-wringing over the potential of mandatory prison sentences for all child molesters and rapists.

Articles circulating in all of today's newspapers, including the Beckley Register-Herald. the Charleston Gazette, and the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, paint the image of certain financial ruin for the state should our prison system consume another $100 million annually of a $3.3 billion general revenue budget.

Those of you who think the West Virginia Legislature is filled with conservative Democrats--and thus it's really not that important that we elect a Republican majority--need to think about whether these people are representing your views. Do we want to continue policies that allow convicted child molesters and rapists to get probation or do we want to follow the lead of Florida and many other states that are adopting 25-year mandatory minimum sentences for any adult who sexually assaults or sexually abuses a child 12 or younger and similarly appropriate sentences for other degrees of sexual assault and sexual abuse?

I submit to you that $100 million annually is quite a bargain for the protection we would receive. Pedophiles who molest and rape young children permanently scar these kids and reoffend more than any other group of criminals. Current law allows accused child rapists to plead their cases (i.e., sexual assault in the first degree) down to lesser charges (i.e., sexual abuse in the first degree) and serve short prison sentences, if any at all.

When Florida passed the Jessica Lunsford Act last year, Florida legislators imposed a 25-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for any adult who sexually assaults or sexually abuses a child younger than 12, followed by mandatory lifetime supervised release with constant GPS monitoring & tracking and a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a second offense of committing any sexual offense against a child younger than 12. The Florida supervised release program is in addition to--and not in lieu of--the mandatory prison sentence.

The debate we are now having over the punishments for felony sexual offenses is critical as it reflects basic, guiding principles of our legislators. What is the first priority of government to the people? Is it not to protect the lives, liberty, and security of the people from foreign enemies and domestic criminals, especially violent criminals who would rape and molest little children? What are we saying about our state and our society if, because of purported financial considerations, we cannot see fit to impose tough, mandatory prison sentences on convicted rapists and child molesters? If these criminals do not deserve tough prison sentences, who does?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Manchin Seeks to Block Senate GOP Sex Offender Bill

Just two days following the state Senate's 28-5 vote to adopt a Republican substitute for the Governor's sex offender bill, SB 205 (click on "SB205 SUB1 eng.htm" on the bill summary page), it appears Governor Manchin is trying to have the bill gutted in the House of Delegates.

Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, said today that the Governor's office and the Division of Corrections were already protesting the bill, citing the potential explosion in the state inmate population if the bill becomes law.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall and one of 5 senators who voted against the Sprouse amendment, told Senate members Friday that he has received a fiscal note from the Division of Corrections and it says the increased prison sentences in SB 205 would cost the state $91.5 million extra a year. Kessler says an additional state prison would also have to be built.

Senator Sprouse says he doesn't believe those financial numbers. "That is a bogus number that's being thrown out there because the governor does not want this bill to pass." Sprouse says there's nothing more important or a higher priority than locking up violent sexual predators for the rest of their lives. "These aren't people who steal a car; these are people who rape and molest four and five-year-olds."

Sprouse says state residents would be willing to have more of their tax dollars go to the Division of Correction to house those type of criminals. Sprouse urged senators not to change their minds. "Don't get weak kneed on this thing. You are on the right side of this issue. You are on the people's side of this issue."

Let's talk both about the financial aspects of this bill and the moral aspects.

The moral aspect of this bill should be self-evident: a person who would rape or molest a young child--the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence proposed only involves victims 12 or younger, while lesser penalties will continue to apply to the statutory rape of older, but still underage, children--is someone who, depending on your viewpoint, is either morally depraved and evil or suffers from a severe disease or mental abnormality. In either case, most sane people would want such people locked away and prevented from victimizing more people--in this case very young children who are scarred for life by pedophiles who rape or molest them. We don't have to ask for a fiscal note to know that SB 205, after adoption of the Sprouse amendment, is simply the right thing to do.

Some people may think that even protecting innocent little boys and girls from sexual predators is subject to monetary considerations. To help you understand some of these financial figures, consider this. In fiscal year 2005, the entire state budget was over $8 billion according to the state's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. About $3.2 billion of that came from federal funds. About $3.3 billion of that came from the state General Revenue Fund--all the taxes and fees imposed and collected by the state. The remainder was from earmarked special revenue funds.

The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety got just over $609 million of the 2005 state budget. The DMAPS is a large agency--consisting of the Army National Guard, the Division of Corrections, the Division of Criminal Justice Services, the Division of Juvenile Services, the Division of Veteran Affairs, the Fire Marshal, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, and the State Police. In 2005, $90 million of DMAPS spending was for armory construction and homeland security projects--and we simply must remember that post-9/11, "homeland security" has become a sacred cow turned into a vehicle for pork projects and extravagances that would never fly under another banner. Another $225 million of DMAPS spending was for a special contribution to eliminate the unfunded liability of the Public Safety Death, Disability, and Retirement Fund (State Police Plan A). About half the DMAPS spending was thus for ongoing operations, bringing the real department budget closer to 2004's $330 million.

In a state with an $8 Billion state budget ($3.3 billion general revenue), Senator Kessler and, at least privately, Governor Manchin don't think spending an extra $91.5 million each year to imprison pedophiles and sexually violent predators who rape and molest young children or who randomly attack & rape women of all ages is a worthy priority of state government. They sure have some strange priorities. Subscribers to traditional philosophies of government have generally held that the very first priority a government has to its people is to protect their lives from enemy attack and the criminal element and then likewise protect their liberty, safety, and security from these threats.

It's up to the House of Delegates--where a much weaker bill ran aground earlier this week and died after being re-referred to committee--to pass SB 205 and not weaken it. It's also up to leaders of both houses to get this bill on the Governor's desk early enough to prevent him from vetoing the bill after the Legislature adjourns--and thus preventing them from overriding it without starting the legislative process anew next year.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Senate Dems Reverse Course, Pass GOP Sex Offender Bill

Just days after effectively gutting in committee a bill, SB 205, to strengthen West Virginia's sex offender laws, the Senate reversed course today and adopted a tougher measure proposed by Senate Republicans. On a 28-5 vote, the Senate substituted the language of SB 276, the Protect Our Children Act, into SB 205.

Senators Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wyoming; Dan Foster and Brooks McCabe, both D-Kanawha; Jon Blair Hunter, D-Monongalia; and Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, voted against the Sprouse amendment. Following the vote on the Sprouse amendment, the Senate unanimously passed SB 205 as amended.

This bill now goes to the House of Delegates, where a bill (HB 4039) identical to the original version of SB 205 died this week after being recommitted to the House Finance Committee following the committee's reporting of the bill with no recommendation.

Today's action marks only a beginning, as there are still 10 days left in this legislative session and plenty of opportunities to either make additional improvements to this bill or undermine it as it passes through the House of Delegates.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

While West Virginia Democratic Legislators Gut Sex Offender Legislation, Their Virginia Counterparts Do the Right Thing

While West Virginia's Ruling Party continues gutting a pair of already weak bills (HB 4039 and SB 205) purporting to protect the citizenry from sex offenders, their counterparts in the Commonwealth of Virginia are on track to unanimously pass multiple bills to provide the children of Virginia airtight protection from sex offenders.

After unanimous passage by the Virginia House of Delegates, HB 846 is on its way to unanimous passage in the Virginia Senate. VA HB 846 establishes a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for the very first offense of sexual assault of a child younger than 12 years old. Ditto for HB 984, HB 1038, HB 1333, and HB 1359, all of which include provisions defeated in West Virginia's House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

Let me repeat this for my friends in the West Virginia Democratic Party: there is no shame in being tough on child molesters and rapists. Not one member of the Virginia General Assembly has voted against or voted to gut any of these measures in the Old Dominion. Surely, you can find a way of following their lead and maybe--maybe--saving your sorry keister from a shellacking in November.

Showdown in the Senate: Fireworks to Erupt Over Sex Offenders: Part II

As I previously wrote, the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday passed a committee substitute for Senate Bill 205, the Governor's sex offender bill. While we knew the committee had rejected a GOP alternative, not until the committee substitute was printed online this morning did I discover that the committee had actually gutted a bill that was already an empty shell going into the committee.

Unlike the House Judiciary Committee's committee substitute for HB 4039, SB 205 as it stands now (bill text of Judiciary Committee substitute) will have no civil commitment law for sexually violent predators and now has no new criminal penalties for any sex offenses until after (1) a person has been convicted of a sexually violent offense, (2) that person is found by the court to be a sexually violent predator or a pedophile, and (3) the person, after all this, then goes out and commits either sexual assault in the first or second degree or sexual abuse in the first degree. There is no mandatory GPS tracking of sex offenders on postrelease supervision and absolutely no mandatory prison sentences whatsoever, even for the proposed tougher penalties for sexually violent predators or pedophiles who reoffend. This is outrageous!

The Ruling Party in this state has no intention of passing a meaningful bill to protect everyone from all types of felony sex offenders. Of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, only the Republicans and Senator Randy White, D-Webster, supported a meaningful bill.

Senate GOP Calls Bailey's Bluff

Last week, Senate Majority Whip Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wyoming, introduced SB 674, dramatically increasing the personal exemptions from the state income tax. Bailey was joined by 17 of the other 20 Democratic senators and Senator Karen Facemeyer, R-Jackson. The other Republican senators knew Bailey was not serious.

Bailey said he wanted to increase the personal exemptions from the state income tax rather than abolish the food tax because the income tax cut would help the working poor more. All state income taxpayers would have benefited from SB 674, as the proposed exclusions of $25,000 for a married couple or $12,500 for a single person would be subtracted from every taxpayer's adjusted gross income regardless of their total income.

However, sensing that Bailey had no real intention of actually passing this bill, Republican senators called Bailey's bluff. A motion to discharge the bill from committee was defeated in a nonrecorded vote in which all Democrats and 3 Republicans opposed discharging the bill from the Senate Finance Committee--whose Chairman, Senator Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, was one of the bill's cosponsors.

The West Virginia Legislature sure seems to work in very strange ways. In how many other legislative chambers do a majority of the members of a chamber cosponsor a bill and then vote against it and say they really didn't mean to act on the bill at all and just wanted to make some people think they wanted to achieve the objective of the sham bill?

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.

O, Happy Day! VA to Raise Speed Limit to 70 on I-85

A welcome sight, coming to Virginia this JulyIt has been a long time coming, but the Commonwealth of Virginia is about to join the rest of Red State America on July 1, when the first 70 mph signs appear in the Old Dominion since 1973.

On an 80-20 vote, the Virginia House of Delegates approved Senate Bill 53, which will raise the speed limit from 65 to 70 on I-85 between Petersburg and North Carolina. The bill now goes to Governor Tim Kaine for his signature. Here's an interesting historical note: in 1973, Governor Kaine's father-in-law, then Governor Linwood Holton, signed a bill raising Virginia's interstate speed limit from 65 to 70. Unfortunately, that change was short-lived.

Hopefully, after seeing that I-85 will not run red with blood, the Virginia General Assembly will see fit next year to make more roads eligible for a 70 mph speed limit. Another needed reform will be to amend the reckless driving law. Under Virginia law, driving 20 mph or more over the speed limit or over 80 mph regardless of the speed limit constitutes an automatic charge of reckless driving, punishable by up to a year in jail, a fine of $2,500, a driver's license suspension, and half the points against a Virginia driver's license to trigger another driver's license suspension. The "or over 80 mph regardless of the speed limit" clause should be stricken from this law.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

House Judiciary Committee Passes Worthless Sex Offender Bill

Recently, the House Judiciary Committee passed a committee substitute for HB 4039, the Governor's sex offender bill. To say this bill is worthless would not be a stretch. While the committee did add a civil commitment law for the most serious sexual predators, the remainder of the bill is an empty shell.

To the credit of the Judiciary Committee, they did propose a civil commitment law for "sexually violent predators," a very small number of the most serious sex offenders who are legally deemed to be near uncontrollable. As in other states, the proposed civil commitment law would allow for the indefinite commitment to a secure mental hospital of the most dangerous threats to our communities until a court orders otherwise. However, this only applies to a handful of cases.

Now, the weakness of this bill. There are no shortage of deficiencies in this bill, as I will enumerate, going through the text of the bill from beginning to end (click here for the full text of the House Judiciary Committee Substitute). The following list is merely the most serious deficiencies in the bill:

  1. Even though some prison sentences for violations of the Sex Offender Registration Act are increased, none of these sentences would be mandatory--NONE!
  2. Proposed §15-12-11 would duplicate a provision of Florida's Jessica Lunsford Act that creates a separate crime for a person who helps a fugitive sex offender being sought by the police. In Florida, this crime is a felony; under this bill, iwould beba misdemeanorrr. This crime must be made a felony given the danger to our communities created in such cases.
  3. Proposed §18A-3-12 would require certain school service personnel and other individuals who would have access to children in schools to undergo a partial background check. Such individuals should be fingerprinted and subjected to a full criminal background check. Additionally §18A-3-10 should be amended to repeal the grandfather clause for fingerprinting and full criminal background checks of teachers and administrators in public schools. Only those who received their initial teaching license after January 1, 2002, are subject to fingerprinting and a background check.
  4. Going down to Chapter 61, Article 8B, the penalties are only increased for two crimes: first-degree sexual assault and first-degree sexual abuse. Even here, the proposed prison sentences are NOT MANDATORY. While an initial glance might indicate to you that the proposed sentences (i.e., 25-60 years for first-degree sexual assault) are tough, judges can still suspend sentences and place a person on probation under current law if the crime is not punishable by a life sentence. Prison sentences for all sexually violent offenses--and not just first-degree sexual assault or first-degree sexual abuse--must be made mandatory.
  5. Over a dozen other sex crimes, including forced prostitution and child pornography, are not even addressed in this bill. I cannot even count the number of loopholes this omission will create to bypass what this bill proposes.
  6. The proposed penalty for sexual abuse--molestation without actual sexual intercourse or intrusion--is only 2-10 years when a victim is less than 12 years old. Under Florida's Jessica's Law, the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for sex crimes against children under 12 years old applies to both sexual assault and sexual abuse. Many, many cases of child sexual abuse involve only sexual abuse without sexual assault.
  7. §62-12-2: Even though the probation eligibility statute is included in this bill, there is no change in eligibility for probation nor any provision that would deny probation even in cases of the most serious offenses.
  8. Most of this bill's deficiencies are those things completely omitted from the bill. The first is eligibility for "good time" credits (WV Code §28-5-27) whereby convicts in prison can reduce their sentences for good behavior. Under current law, a convict is entitled to a mandatory 50% sentence reduction for consistent good behavior while in prison. Under the federal system and most state laws, good time credits can only reduce a sentence by 15%.
  9. There are no provisions whatsoever for reforming the bail system for sex offenders. Bail is set by magistrates--almost none of whom are lawyers--except when a crime is punishable by life imprisonment. Under current law, a circuit judge sets bail in cases punishable by life imprisonment. These sex offenses are too serious not to be subjected to the more formal bail proceedings of a circuit court and the judgment of a more educated circuit judge. Additionally, the law should changed to require more stringent bail conditions when accused sex offenders do make bail. A person charged with a sexually violent offense should, if he or she even gets bail at all, be subject to a very high bail, electronic monitoring while out on bail, and other conditions that are appropriate given cases like the Groene murders in Idaho a few months ago.
  10. There are no sex offender parole reforms. Under current parole law, a convict qualifies for parole upon completing the minimum range of an indeterminate (i.e., 15-35 years) sentence or 1/4 of a determinate (fixed term) sentence, and the convict is permanently discharged from further supervision 5 years from initial parole. Coupled with the liberal "good time" credit law, even sex offenders are almost automatically guaranteed release from prison after serving little more than the minimum sentence. While the bill strengthens the sex offender postrelease supervision law, postrelease supervision does not begin until parole is over.

These are just the most glaring deficiencies in the current bill. I have written and submitted to some of the House Republicans for their consideration a 300-page substitute amendment for this bill that closes these and many other loopholes or simple deficiencies in the bill that would truly address the problem of our state's weak sex offender laws.