Mandatory sentences dropped

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AUGUSTA – Jessica’s Law, in one form or another, will be debated in the State House.

A parliamentary maneuver by Majority Leader Glenn Cummings had left the bill lingering in legislative limbo for more than a month. On Wednesday, Cummings allowed the bill to move forward and be assigned to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which has been working on an alternative.

In its original form, Jessica’s Law would have imposed a 25-year minimum sentence on predators convicted of gross sexual assault against a minor younger than 12, and would have required lifetime probation for them once released. A second offense would have earned an automatic life sentence.

The law is named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old who was sexually assaulted and killed in Florida last year by a repeat sexual offender.

At a rally in support of Jessica’s Law, staged Wednesday on the steps of the State House, radio personality Ray Richardson lambasted the Legislature for its inaction.

“This is an important piece of legislation that would protect our children from the monsters who want to abuse them,” Richardson told the crowd of about 100 people. “These folks work for us. We can never let them forget it.”

“We know (legislators) can raise taxes. We know they can spend money. We know they can designate a state soft drink,” Richardson lamented after asking the crowd to go into the State House and lobby their legislators to take up Jessica’s Law. “We want to know if they can protect children.”

In its new form, what was Jessica’s Law does not include mandatory minimum sentences, but does set a base sentence of 20 years as a starting point and requires judges to explain on the record why the sentence is increased or decreased. The new language would also allow for sentences in excess of 30 years and includes lifetime electronic monitoring.

Cummings defended his decision to postpone consideration of the bill by saying he knew work was being done on a more effective alternative.

“I wanted to give (legislators) the chance to have something that improves children’s safety, not endanger it,” Cummings said.

Mandatory minimums are opposed by victims’ advocates and prosecutors alike, Cummings said, because they require cases to go to court and don’t leave room for plea agreements.

“With a 25-year mandatory minimum, you have to go all the way,” Cummings said, “which means conviction rates will go down.”

The prospects of forcing young victims to relive their assaults and subjecting them to difficult cross-examination is also reason enough to oppose the bill that forces a trial every time, Cummings said.

“In fact, Jessica’s Law would allow more child molesters on the street,” Cummings said.

Rep. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, who worked on the revision to Jessica’s Law, echoed Cummings: “The bill would have dramatically increased the burden of proof needed to get a conviction and that would put young victims in jeopardy.”

In the Criminal Justice Committee, which worked on the legislation Wednesday afternoon, state Sen. Dean Clukey, R-Houlton, said the bill had been weakened by the elimination of the mandatory minimums. “This has come a long way from Jessica’s Law,” he said. Later, however, he agreed that the bill was better than nothing.

“I firmly believe that his proposal will put more people in jail for a longer time,” Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, told the Criminal Justice Committee. “I’m absolutely convinced that the other bill would have let more people get away with it. … I think this proposal makes sure people serve jail time.”

The new bill passed the committee, 7-3, with three members absent. Those members are expected to support the new version of the bill.

The House could take up the issue as early as today and can consider both the new version of the bill and the original Jessica’s Law, which is being presented as a minority report from the committee.

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