Olathe Many first-time sex offenders who prey on children will face 25 years in prison under a politically popular "Jessica's Law" signed Wednesday by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The law, which applies to crimes committed after July 1, also imposes harsher penalties on repeat criminals, so third-time sex offenders will be sentenced to life without possibility of parole. The 25-year sentence for a first-offender contrasts with the maximum of 13 years and nine months for the rape of a child.
Both Sebelius and Atty. Gen. Phill Kline have called for tougher punishments for sex offenders, arguing that Kansans overwhelmingly support them. But even as Sebelius and Kline celebrated the law's enactment, at least a few legislators harbored doubts about the new law.
The bill was modeled after a Florida law and named for a 9-year-old girl killed last year by a convicted sex offender. Arkansas, Oregon and Virginia have enacted similar laws this year.
"These are the very criminals who need to be behind bars and away from children in our neighborhoods," Sebelius said before signing the bill.
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Sebelius signed the bill in a courtroom at the Johnson County Courthouse, flanked by Kline, legislators and Dist. Atty. Paul Morrison, as about 40 spectators watched.
"It is part of an ongoing correction of Kansas law, which has been much too weak on those who harm our children," Kline said.
Sebelius introduced Morrison as a representative of the state's county prosecutors, but he's also running against Kline this year, having switched to the Democratic Party to challenge the GOP incumbent. The two men shook hands before the ceremony began.
"One of the things that we're trying to get better at doing in Kansas is trying to separate offenders that we're mad at versus those we're afraid of," Morrison said. "These people are the ones we need to be afraid of, and that's why they're going to be getting longer prison sentences."
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Vratil, R-Leawood, called the new law "a huge gamble" and said it would not deter sex offenders from victimizing children.
He agreed offenders in prison won't have new victims but added, "We're going to have to pay for it, too."
Legislators didn't approve any plan this year for expanding the state's prison system, or allowing the state to place inmates in private prisons in Kansas. Officials estimate the new law will require 1,000 additional prison beds over the next decade.
"The Legislature has shown no inclination to deal with our problem with near-capacity prisons," Vratil said, noting that state prisons are more than 95 percent full.
But Sebelius said: "The number of prison beds should not determine our criminal penalties. We need to anticipate keeping dangerous folks behind bars."
Sen. Phil Journey worried the new law could warp criminal justice policy.
For example, he noted that second-degree murder can result in a 15-year prison sentence, so that someone who kills a child might end up getting 10 years less in prison than someone who molests one.
"Proportionality has to be preserved, or we end up with strange things," said Journey, R-Haysville.
The bill calls for a minimum 25-year sentence for adults convicted of any of seven violent sex crimes against anyone younger than 14, including rape, aggravated sodomy and sexual exploitation.
Legislators included a provision allowing judges to impose lesser sentences for compelling reasons, something Journey said would make the law less harsh.
Still, Journey said he's concerned that the law "casts the net too broadly." For example, he said, a 19-year-old man might become infatuated with a 13-year-old neighbor girl and not realize her age.
But such an argument didn't move the bill's sponsor, Rep. Patricia Kilpatrick, R-Overland Park, who said: "Clearly, we need to address rape and molestation of children. It doesn't matter if they're infatuated or not. This is a crime."
Under the new law, a second conviction, no matter the victim's age, means a sentence of 40 years. Third-timers face life without the possibility of parole, while the current maximum for the rape of a child allows parole after 49 years and four months.
Once released, offenders face a lifetime of parole and wearing a Global Positioning System bracelet, so the state can track their movements.
All other offenders, such as those convicted of a first offense 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.