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Archive for Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Senate acts on compromise on sex offender legislation

May 3, 2006

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— Getting tough on child molesters and other sex offenders has been a priority for legislators since the start of the session, and now they're in position to send a bill to the governor to do just that.

But there could be a problem - another bill hitched to the sex offender legislation. A House-Senate conference committee bundled the crime bill with another allowing private prisons in the state to hold Kansas inmates.

The Senate voted 33-7 Tuesday to send the bill to the House, which last year refused to debate private prisons. Because it's a House-Senate conference committee proposal, House members must either accept or reject both ideas.

"We'll run it. There's no way to tell whether it will pass," said Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka.

Some see it as a power play by senators.

"It doesn't play well with me. It's not a game," said Rep. Shari Weber, R-Herington. "Children abused and exploited shouldn't be held hostage by the personal views of the leadership of the Senate chamber."

If the House rejects the bundled bill, negotiators could remove private prisons and leave the portion modeled after Florida's "Jessica's Law," named for a 9-year-old Florida girl who killed last year by a convicted sex offender. Virginia, Oregon and Arkansas this year enacted their versions of "Jessica's Law."

The bill calls for a minimum 25-year sentence for adults convicted of any of seven violent sex crimes against anyone under 14, including rape, aggravated sodomy and sexual exploitation. Trial judges could impose a lesser penalty in cases with "substantial and compelling" reasons.

The Senate debate focused on opposition to private prisons.

"There are two policies in this bill. The right way is to separate them," said Sen. Jay Scott Emler, R-Lindsborg.

Sen. Greta Goodwin, D-Winfield, said it's cheaper to contract with a private prison than to have the state build a new facility.

"We don't have a lot of options to take care of a lot of prisoners," said Goodwin, D-Windfield.

The Department of Corrections would license and regulate the facilities and private operators would build and operate them in counties where voters approve the idea.

"They are going to cherry pick. They are going to pick the best and leave the worst," said Sen. Phil Journey, R-Haysville.

But Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, disagreed, saying the state would decide which inmates a private prison would take.

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt said at least 30 other states have private prisons, and noted that corrections officials estimate the increased penalties for sex offenders would generate the need for an additional 1,000 prison beds by 2016.

Schmidt, R-Independence, said while Woodson County in his district wants a private prison, the bill leaves it up to the secretary of corrections to decide where any facility will be located.

While Kansas law prohibits housing state prisoners in private facilities in the state, they can be housed in private facilities in other states.

The 25-year sentence was just the start of getting tough on sex offenders.

Those convicted a second time, no matter the victim's age, would face 40 years and third-time offenders would get life without the possibility of parole.

Once released after serving every day of their sentences, offenders would face a lifetime of parole and wearing a Global Positioning System monitoring bracelet so their movements could be tracked.

All other offenders, such as first-time convictions in which the victim is older than 14, face lifetime parole when released. If they violate parole, they must wear the tracking bracelet for life.

Sex offenders must report to their local sheriff's office during their birthday month each year to have an updated photo made of them.

The bill also makes it a crime to entice someone on the Internet or telephone if they believe the person is a child.

The KBI has nearly 4,000 registered sex offenders in its public database dating to 1994. Children were victims in 80 percent of the cases.

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