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Subcommittee Examines Child Protection Bills

This week, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held three hearings to examine numerous legislative proposals aimed at protecting children from violence, sexual exploitation, and abuse.

Mandatory Minimums
On June 7, the subcommittee heard testimony on two bills sponsored by Rep. Mark Green (R-WI)—the Protection Against Sexual Exploitation of Children Act (H.R. 2318) and the Prevention and Deterrence of Crimes Against Children Act (H.R. 2388). H.R. 2318 would increase the penalties for sexual offenses against children, and H.R. 2388 would create minimum mandatory sentences for certain violent crimes against children.

Rep. Green presided over the hearing, saying, “Statistics show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys are sexually exploited before they reach adulthood, yet less than 35 percent of the incidents are reported to authorities.” Speaking in support of his bills, Rep. Green said, “Mandatory minimum penalties are favored overwhelmingly by the American public because they, like many of us, are not willing to entrust Federal judges to act in a consistent manner when sentencing sexual predators for sexual abuse and exploitation of our children.”

Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) expressed his concern about the bills. Rather than focusing on mandatory minimum sentences, he suggested a greater emphasis be placed on child abuse prevention programs, stating, “We must look at the cost effectiveness.” He opposed increasing the mandatory minimum sentence from 5 to 30 years, saying that “it makes no sense to mandate a 30-year sentence,” adding that “an increase in sentences would only hit Native Americans.”

Laura Parsky, deputy assistant attorney general in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice (DoJ) stated, “One of the most prevalent manifestations of the growing problem of child exploitation and sexual abuse crimes is the escalating presence of child pornography.” She cited a Department of Health and Human Services’ 2003 report that estimated that 906,000 children were victims of child abuse or neglect. Ms. Parsky pointed to department initiatives in response to this increasing trend. Within the last two years, the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) increased its pornography cases and investigations by 445 percent. Currently, CEOS is coordinating 17 operations around the nation, each operation involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of child pornography offenders. “The Department also works toward the critical goal of identifying the victims depicted in images of child pornography, so that they can be rescued and protected from further abuse,” said Ms. Parsky. CEOS and the FBI Endangered Child Alert Program work together to target and identify the subjects depicted engaging in the sexual exploitation of children. With respect to H.R. 2318 and H.R. 2388, Ms. Parsky stated that while the department “supports mandatory minimum sentences in appropriate circumstances,” it is still reviewing the bills.

Attorney General of Florida Charlie Crist discussed his state’s efforts, saying, “The best way to eliminate sex crimes against children, of course, is to prevent them from happening in the first place.” State prevention and education initiatives have been aimed at parents and children and include a searchable database of registered sex offenders and NetSmartz, an interactive educational website developed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America that teaches kids and teens how to stay safer on the internet. Additionally, Florida recently enacted the Jessica Lunsford Act, “which establishes longer prison sentences for criminals who sexually molest children and requires tracking devices once they do get out,” he said. “As helpful as the Jessica Lunsford Act may be, I believe it does not go far enough to stop sex offenders from violating probation and victimizing more young children. Using ankle bracelets with GPS technology to track sex offenders will let us know where they are, but it will not prevent them from committing more crimes” he told the subcommittee, emphasizing the need for better enforcement. “Ultimately, our ability to limit the activities of sex offenders who prey on children will depend on enforcement and prosecution,” he said.

John Rhodes, an assistant federal defender in the state of Montana, opposed the two bills largely because of what he cited as negative impacts on Native Americans. “Native Americans already receive higher sentences under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines than non-Indians convicted of similar offenses in state court,” he said, adding that there are already laws that achieve the goals of deterrence while also providing flexibility when necessary in some individual cases.

Legislative Proposals
On June 9, four Members testified before the subcommittee in support of bills they have sponsored. Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) discussed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (H.R. 2423). Stating that his bill “cleans up” the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Predators Act, which requires states to create sex offender registries, by adding “25 common sense provisions that would further strengthen the way we track these pedophiles. Some of the provisions include: requiring that states, not localities, collect sex offender registration information; requiring sex offenders to register before they leave custody; incorporating tribal lands under the law; requiring states to have multi-field, searchable database and require states to make that information available to other states; requiring at least semi-annual registrations; requiring updates of the offenders photos and fingerprints; and increasing the registration duration period.”

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) outlined the Child Predator Act (H.R. 1355), which “closes loopholes in the present law and places tools in the hands of parents who want to safeguard their children from child predators.” Specifically, he said that the bill does six things: 1) defines the term “child predator” as a person who has been convicted of a sexual offense against a victim who is a minor; 2) requires child predators to report a change of residence within 10 days of a move; 3) requires child predators to notify schools, public housing, and at least two media outlets in the community; 4) classifies registry noncompliance as a felony; 5) mandates a national sex offender database; and 6) requires flagging of all records in the national database for all child predators.

Noting that her bill would “make needed reforms to our sex offender laws,” Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL) spoke about the Jessica Lunsford Act (H.R. 1505), which would require “sex offenders who fail to register with a state or fail to report a change of address two or more times to wear an ankle-monitoring device for 5 years. Sexual predators would wear the device for 10 years.” Additionally, the bill would require that address verification mailers be sent out at least twice a year and would require a state office or court to notify the individual’s supervising probation officer of any past sexual offense. Rep. Brown-Waite said, “Families can feel safer knowing that these penalties ensure these lowest of criminals are constantly monitored and properly punished.”

Stating that “sex offenders do not stop at state lines, and neither should our sex offender registries,” Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) detailed his bill, the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Database Act (H.R. 95), which would establish a federal online sex offender database that would be free and accessible to the public. “The current national database, established under the Jacob Wetterling Act, is accessible only by law enforcement. While many states and local communities provide their own online, public registries, they do not provide information on neighboring states,” he said.

A member of the subcommittee, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), noted that only 22 state sex offender registries collect and maintain DNA samples as part of their registries. She has introduced a bill (H.R. 244) that would create a separate DNA database for violent predators against children. Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Sue Kelly (R-NY), would require the attorney general to establish a federal registry of cases of child abuse or neglect.

Sex Offender Registries
During the second hearing on June 9, the subcommittee heard testimony regarding the effectiveness of state sex offender registries and the implementation of a National Sex Offender Public Registry Website. Tracy Henke, acting assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs at the DoJ, summarized the department’s efforts to implement a National Sex Offender Public Registry (NSOPR). Plans for the registry, which will be made available on the Internet, were announced by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on May 20. Noting that the department can quickly implement the site, Ms. Henke said that the DoJ will work with states and territories to “link their public registries, at no cost, to the national search site.” Initially the department’s goal is to have at least 20 states participating in the NSOPR and to make the site available within 60 days. Four states—Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—are currently participating in a prototype of the site. Although every state currently operates a publicly available sex offender registry website, Ms. Henke noted that it can be time consuming for individuals to search multiple states. “For the first time, this will link all of the states information.”

President and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Ernie Allen discussed the challenge of tracking, registering, and managing convicted sex offenders. While praising the Wetterling Act, Mr. Allen said that there are many problems with the state registries: “The federal scheme leaves a great deal of discretion to the states in how they implement their individual registration programs. As a result, there is a significant lack of consistency and uniformity from state to state. There are also serious discrepancies among the states, creating loopholes in the laws that permit sex offenders to cross state lines and remain undetected.” He also noted that an estimated 100,000 convicted sex offenders are non-compliant offenders, meaning they have not properly registered.

In addition to the Wetterling Act, Mr. Allen pointed to problems with Megan’s Law, which was enacted in 1996 and requires states to notify residents when a convicted sex offender moves into their community. “In 17 states law enforcement is authorized by statute to conduct only passive notification to the public about the presence of sex offenders in their communities—it is up to the public to continually seek out this information on their own initiative in order to protect themselves. Furthermore, many states do not provide information about their entire registry of sex offenders, only a portion of them, usually those designated as posing a high risk of reoffense, which can also vary widely between states,” he said. Mr. Allen commended Attorney General Gonzales for creating the nationwide sex offender database, saying, “Public access to this information is vital to preventing sexual crimes against children.”

Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor at John Hopkins University, spoke about his concerns with community notification programs and the lack of rehabilitation available to convicted sex offenders in prison. Stating that studies have not yet shown that community notification programs are effective, Dr. Berlin said that for the small number of convicted sex offenders who want to offend again, community notification programs have the unintended consequence of “driving people underground,” adding that those individuals will simply search for a community where notification programs are not enforced. “Are we keeping the community safe?” he questioned the subcommittee.

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