Pass Jessica's Law before more children suffer
July 31, 2008
By Mike Benevento
Three years ago, previously convicted sex offender John Couey raped and murdered 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Couey's crimes upset Floridians so much that they called on their Legislature to pass stricter sex offender laws. Named after Lunsford, Jessica's Law was the centerpiece legislation. Since then, 40 states have passed at least a partial version of Jessica's Law.
Over the last few years, Vermont has deservedly received national attention for being too lenient on sex offenders. Commentator Bill O'Reilly has been one of America's biggest proponents of strict laws against child molesters. On his TV and radio programs, he has taken Vermont to task for not appropriately protecting children. As O'Reilly noted, “In Vermont, there are no mandatory sentencing laws for child rapists.”
Jessica's Law establishes a minimum 25-year sentence for anyone convicted of sexually abusing a young child. It also requires sex offenders on parole to wear a GPS device for police to track their whereabouts. According to the Bennington Banner, Vermont's Legislature has failed to pass Jessica's Law twice in the past.
In early 2007, O'Reilly shared the story of Andrew James, who repeatedly molested a 4-year-old boy in southern Vermont. Despite his crimes, James was not sentenced to jail. He received only probation and treatment as punishment.
Two years ago, Judge Edward Cashman initially sentenced Williston's Mark Hulett to only 60 days in prison for raping a 6-year-old girl for four years. (Derek Kimball of Hinesburg was also charged with sexual assault of the same girl.) As O'Reilly pointed out, “The outcry embarrassed the state of Vermont, but still Jessica's Law was voted down by the Legislature.”
Yet another horrific assault of a child is forcing Vermont to reconsider its sex predator laws.
Earlier this month, 12-year-old Brooke Bennett's body was found in a shallow grave. Her uncle — convicted sex offender Michael Jacques — has been charged with her kidnapping and murder. Because of Jacques' lenient punishment for a previous kidnapping and rape, Brooke's death brought back calls for tougher laws against child sex offenders.
Three weeks ago, Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie told Channel 3 News, “When a person is sexually assaulted, a minor is sexually assaulted, it's my opinion that they should go to jail for 25 years.” He added, “That's very simple and that's what Jessica's Law calls for.”
Agreeing with Dubie, on July 10, Gov. James Douglas said the state should pass stronger laws against sex offenders, including Jessica's Law, civil commitment, strengthening the state's sex offender registry, chemically castrating sex offenders and returning the death penalty to Vermont.
According to Douglas, he reached out to House Speaker Gaye Symington and President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin to request a meeting with them, the minority leaders and the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to urge them to support a special session to consider his proposals.
However, the Democrats — who control the Legislature — only seem to be interested in investigating what went wrong with the judicial system's handling of Jacques and not passing any new laws. Thus, Douglas is not planning on calling for a special session, as it would not accomplish much.
Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs said “Sen. Shumlin and Speaker Symington have made it very clear that they oppose an immediate special session for the purposes of strengthening our sex offender laws. It would therefore be unproductive for the governor to call a special session without the support of the legislative leadership.”
Symington said a special session would be used to investigate why current laws “are not being enforced by the Douglas administration,” before the Legislature considers new laws. Symington, a candidate for governor, said if elected she would launch a “thoughtful review” of the state sex offender laws.
In the end, as Bill O'Reilly notes, “Vermont has become a secular progressive enclave — a state that believes in restorative justice, that is healing for the criminal as well as the victim.” So far, the Democratic/Progressive Legislature seemingly cares more for the rights of the offender than the helpless children the molesters scar for life.
Rehabilitating violent sex offenders is a difficult task. Unless the offender wants rehabilitation, the recidivism rate is very high. Maybe the prospect of a long prison sentence would deter abusers. For most, it would not. However, one thing is certain: Passing Jessica's Law would keep child rapists in jail and out of our communities for at least 25 years.
Vermonters need to do everything possible to prevent sexual abuse against children. Passing Jessica's Law would be a big step in the right direction.
Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor's degree in Military History and a master's in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.