Child sex offenders would be subject to stringent monitoring requirements and face new mandatory penalties under a House-passed bill that was expanded to include protections for gays and lesbians under federal hate crime law.
The House voted 371-52 Wednesday in favor of the Children’s Safety Act, which, among its many provisions, creates a national Web site for child sex offenders and stipulates that sex felons face up to 20 years in prison for failing to comply with registration requirements.
Unexpectedly, the House voted 223-199 in favor of an amendment by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., that expands current hate crime law to include some crimes involving sexual orientation, gender and disability. Under current law, the federal government assists local and state authorities prosecuting limited types of crimes based on the victim’s race, religion or ethnic background.
The House has been the chief obstacle in numerous previous attempts to expand hate crimes law, and Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, said it was an “incredibly historic vote” that could give momentum to similar action in the Senate.
Response to ‘national crisis’
The sex offender bill, which also requires felony offenders to register for life and authorizes the death penalty for sex crimes resulting in the killing of a child, responds to what House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said was a “national crisis” in child sex offenses. He said that of some 550,000 convicted sex offenders in the nation, the whereabouts of 100,000 are unknown.
Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., said, “We track library books better than we do sexual predators.”
Sensenbrenner said the legislation would get favorable treatment in the Senate and he expected it to be signed into law by the end of the year.
The White House, in a statement, expressed support, saying that even though sex crimes against children have declined significantly in recent years, more needs to be done. It noted that the legislation codified the online National Sex Offender Public Registry that the Justice Department launched earlier this year.
The legislation brings together parts of numerous proposals to protect children from sex offenders. Sections of the bill are named after victims in cases that gained national prominence, including North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin and 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Florida.
Among the criticisms of the bill were that it could further ostracize people who have paid for their crimes and are trying to live normal lives. Out-of-jail offenders facing harassment or unable to get jobs “may just go underground and not bother to register again,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.
Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., offered an amendment to eliminate several mandatory minimum sentences, including one creating a minimum penalty of five years and a maximum of 20 years for offenders who fail to comply with registration requirements. It was defeated, 316-106.
Tough penalties for non-registration
The mandatory minimums are “definitely going to ensnare people who are in good faith attempting to comply with the registration requirements, which are somewhat vague and complex,” said Kyle O’Dowd, legislative affairs director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Among the many amendments accepted was one by Sensenbrenner that would help local law officials track down the estimated 15,000 sex offenders who may have relocated as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Another, by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., provides for the civil confinement of violent sex offenders deemed by a panel of experts as too dangerous to return to society.
Among the provisions of the bill:
- It creates a national Web site and requires states to notify the federal government of any changes to a sex offender’s registration information. States are required to notify each other when a sex offender moves from one state to another.
- It requires each state to maintain a statewide Internet site to include such information as an offender’s address, picture, vehicle and facts of his conviction.
- It broadens the category of sex offenders to include any felony or misdemeanor sex offenses against minors. The category of crimes covered by the bill is expanded to include juvenile sex offenses and possession of child pornography.
- Felony sex offenders will have to register for life, and misdemeanor sex offenders for 20 years.
- It creates a verification program under which a sex offender must report by mail every 30 days.
- It requires criminal background checks of prospective foster care families.
- It ensures mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes against children, ranging from death or life imprisonment when a child is killed and 30 years in prison for crimes involving kidnapping, maiming or aggravated sexual abuse.
- It expands the use of DNA evidence to solve sex crimes.