Archive for Friday, May 5, 2006

Negotiators meet to reach agreement on sexual offender bill

May 5, 2006

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— After encountering House resistance, negotiators were back at the table Thursday trying to salvage legislation to strengthen penalties for child molesters and other sex offenders.

On Wednesday, the Housed voted 74-49 to reject a compromise bill that bundled the popular measure dubbed "Jessica's Law" with legislation the Senate wants to allow private prisons in Kansas.

The Senate said the bills belong together since tougher penalties for sex offenders mean more inmates, and private prisons provide a way to deal with that. The House last year refused to debate private prisons and didn't take it up this year.

Although negotiators didn't reach any agreement, House leaders remained optimistic an accord can be reached to ensure passage of the sex offender bill in the session's closing days.

"I still think something will happen. It's just a matter of finding the right combination to satisfy all parties," said Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka.

At the table Thursday, Sen. John Vratil, his chamber's lead negotiator, asked, "Is there anything we can do to the private prison portion to make it more palatable to the House?"

Rep. Mike O'Neal, his chamber's top negotiator, said taking up the two issues separately could be agreeable to the House.

"If the private prisons bill has merit, it has merit on its own. They don't want to see private prisons when it's tied to something with more buoyancy," said O'Neal, R-Hutchinson.

After the meeting, Vratil, R-Leawood, was asked if senators would consider something other than a bundled bill.

"Sure, we're always willing to consider something. Whether we agree is another matter," he said.

Another negotiator, Sen. Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said, "We're looking at different alternatives."

O'Neal called the bundled bill "a dead issue," but said he's willing to listen to other ideas for dealing with private prisons.

"I'm all ears. Just don't ask me to put private prisons in a conference committee report with Jessica's Law," he said.

The sex offender bill is modeled after Florida's Jessica Law, named for the 9-year-old girl killed last year by a convicted sex offender. Arkansas, Oregon and Virginia this year enacted similar laws.

Among other things, 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.

For a second conviction, no matter the victim's age, it's 40 years, and third-time offenders face life without the possibility of parole.

The prison portion allows the Department of Corrections to license and regulate private prisons in counties where voters approve the idea. The agency also decides where the prisons will be located.

Supporters say at least 30 other states have private prisons, and that corrections officials estimate the increased penalties for sex offenders would generate the need for an additional 1,000 prison beds by 2016.

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

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