The 80th Texas State Legislature will ammend the penal code to deal with sexually violent predators.
The Texas State Legislative body will attempt to address the problem of sexually violent crimes by adopting into its penal code a new law. Senate Bill 5 will deal with the “Continuous abuse of a child,” which is being defined as the abuse of a child in more than one instance over a period of 30 days. The new law will be named for Jessica Lunsford who was abducted from her home in Florida, sexually assaulted and buried alive. SB 5, which had already passed in the house, is currently being considered by the Texas State Legislature. If it passes, Texas will become one of only a few other states to have adopted similar measures into law.
Jessica’s Law seeks to accomplish the following:
1. Ensure that all child molesters are incarcerated with a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years or 25 years to life and offered the death penalty for continuous abuse of a child.
2. Eliminate all “good-time” credits for sex offenders, ensuring that these sex offenders are required to serve their entire sentence and without early release for good behavior.
3. Electronic monitoring of convicted sex offenders for life, if they are ever released from prison, through GPS tracking.
4. Create a 2,000-foot “predator-free” zone around schools and parks to prevent sex offenders from living near where children learn and play.
5. Do away with the statute of limitations for testifying against perpetrators.
Currently, the statute only allows victims 10 years after their 18th birthday to file charges against their molesters and rapists. Because of the elements of fear, guilt and shame associated with their experience, many victims wait until they are in their forties and fifties to tell and some never tell. According to the Rape and Incest National Network, 44 percent of rape victims are under age 18 go unreported and 59 percent of all rape/sexual assaults combined go unreported.
Despite some coverage in the media, there are still a great many people who have never heard of Jessica’s Law or the fact that similar measures are currently being debated in both the House and the Senate. Karen Amacher, Communications Director of the Texas Association against Sexual Assault stated that the bill initially caused some confusion because legislators did not know how their constituency would want them to vote. This is further borne out in an interview with an area Dallas resident.
“I know about current restrictions on convicted child molesters and rapist where schools and playgrounds are concerned, but before today I had never heard of Jessica’s Law,” said Frances Thomas, of east Dallas. When asked if she thought the death penalty was too harsh a penalty for violent child sex offenders or if she had any fears of wrongful convictions Thomas replied, “I am concerned because I think people get caught up sometimes without good representation, but I don’t think the death penalty is too harsh,” said Thomas. “People don’t care anymore! They think they can get away with anything so they’ll try anything. How else do we keep this from happening?” Thomas is the mother of an adult survivor of sexual assault and currently assists in advocacy for parolees who have difficulty with re-integration.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Senator Robert Deuell, appearing before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, refused to back down from their support of the death penalty for violent child sex offenders, despite growing opposition. Kelvin Bass, spokesperson for Senator Royce West said victim advocacy groups and prosecutors testifying before the committee said that the attachment of the death penalty would make it even harder to get convictions. They also expressed concern that the law may force child victims, who most often are victimized by family members and acquaintances to testify against offenders with the knowledge that they will be sentencing someone to death. Williamson County District Attorney stated he believed the death penalty attachment would even encourage sex offenders to kill their victims, the Austin-Statesman reported.
When asked about the possibility of disparities with respect to minority sentencing, Bass replied, “Senators Ellis and Hinijosa raised this very question with regard to application.” It is their contention that minorities will be more adversely affected because of ineffective representation and other factors, which traditionally plague lower socio-economic status individuals who find themselves in defense of such charges.
If the bill passes, it may immediately face a flurry of constitutional challenges. The United States Supreme Court in Coker vs. Georgia (1977), in a vote of 7-2, found the death penalty excessive and unconstitutional, citing racial discrimination and disportionality for the crime of raping a 16-year-old. The court ruled that only those convicted of murder could be put to death.
In an interview with Don Forest, Communications Director for Senator Deuell and Legislative Aid responsible for Jessica’s Law, admitted that there were problems with support for the bill as it is reads. “Senator Deuell is working on tweaking the language of the bill to totally eliminate the statute of limitations on reporting and where getting the twenty-five year sentence minimum will not be a problem…deterrent is the most important component of the bill. The Senator wants those who would commit these kinds of crimes to know what the punishment will be…”
Regardless of the opposition that currently exists for this bill in its current form, proponents vow to stay the course until a consensus is reached. “We are confident that by the end of the session that we will get something out that everyone can come on board with,” said Senator Deuell.
He stated further that he was listening closely to opponents such as the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault who, according to Karen Amacher, Communications Director for TAASA, say this bill is a bad idea and are supporting SB 97, introduced by Senator Rodney Ellis and HB 204, authored by Representative Jose Menendez as substitutes for the current bill. The bills, which have only been introduced in both the House and Senate, are identical and eliminate the death penalty as a consequence of repeated offenses.
Representatives Yvonne Davis, Terri Hodge and Helen Giddings voted “no” to House Bill 8, the House version of Senate Bill 5. Representative Barbara Mallory Caraway voted “yes.” Senate Bill 5 passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee with a vote of 5-1, with one abstaining. Senator Ellis is also on that committee. According to Bass, Senator West has not yet taken a position on the issue.
Senator Deuell, a medical doctor, was tapped by Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst to lead the charge for sponsorship of this bill, which will be offered as a part of Dewhurst’s “Texas Children’s First” program.
According to a 2003 report by Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at The University of Texas at Austin, 1.9 million adult Texans (1,479,912 female and 372,394 male) or 13 percent of adult Texans have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. This translates to roughly one rape every 1 hour and 1 minute according to the Texas Crime Clock, Crime in Texas 2005.
A Dallas Examiner commissioned work.