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The full toolbox for sex offenders
STATE lawmakers should adjust sex-offender laws with precision, not with the wildly swinging hammer of emotion.
Sex offenders who prey on children are the lowest of the vilest low — and the court system needs as many tools as possible to bring them to justice, not fewer.
Last week, the father of a Florida girl, sexually abused and who died while buried alive by a predator made the pitch for Washington to get tougher on sex offenders by enacting a version of Jessica's Law, named for his daughter.
Last year, the Northwest was horrified by the story of a convicted sex offender from Tacoma accused of killing a North Idaho family, kidnapping two children and sexually abusing them for weeks. Only one lived.
Some state lawmakers want to use the fire around these especially heinous cases to enact tougher legislation. More than 20 bills dealing with sex offenders have been introduced.
But lawmakers must remember Washington's laws already are among the toughest in the nation. Serious sex offenses fall under a two-strikes-and-you're-out law, and the 2001 Legislature enacted a sentencing approach that permitted longer sentences and more supervision for those convicted. Sex offenders are required to register, and the pernicious are civilly committed after completing their prison sentences.
The proposed get-tough mandates — one suggests a 30-year minimum sentence — threaten a strength of Washington's existing laws: flexibility on the part of prosecutors, judges and even victims. Prosecutors argue persuasively higher-stakes sentencing could leave more offenders on the street to continue their abuse.
One example of effective flexibility is the 22-year-old Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative, which permits lighter sentences with community treatment in special circumstances. Originally established at the behest of victim advocates, the law was intended to increase the likelihood of prosecution in those cases where victims hesitate to cooperate with prosecutors because their abuser — a father or other relative, say — would be sent to jail for extended time. Some victims worry what will become of their siblings if they send the family's breadwinner off to prison.
That's hard for most people to understand. But for a victim with a child's logic and perhaps not much support from other family members, it is easier to clam up than to take a stand. The case falls apart, and the abusers are left to continue their violations without intervention.
Some proposals before the Legislature are noncontroversial and reasonable. But on the larger question of mandatory minimum sentencing, it is better to keep flexibility in the system on both ends. Judges should be able to go lighter on those rare occasions when justified and to sentence a predator more severely when warranted.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company