Legislature moves quickly to pass new sex offender law

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(Host) The Legislature is moving quickly to strengthen sex offender laws after a highly publicized murder this summer.

Later this week, the House is set to debate a bill that includes tougher prison sentences for anyone convicted of sexually assaulting a minor.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The legislation is the result of a series of public hearings that were held by the Senate Judiciary committee following the murder of 12 year old Brooke Bennett last summer.

The Senate passed its bill last month and the approach taken by the House Judiciary committee is very similar to the one adopted by the Senate.

The legislation creates a new crime, aggravated sexual assault of a minor. People convicted of this crime will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in jail.
House Judiciary chairman Bill Lippert says the bill is a top priority for his committee:

(Lippert) "I think Vermonters are eager for the Legislature to fully respond to the crimes of sexual violence and particularly the tragedy that took place last summer."

Lippert says the bill contains more than just tougher sentences. He says it has additional money for prevention programs and it fully funds special investigative units across the state:

(Lippert) "Which prosecutors and virtually everyone who testified said if there’s a single most important thing that we can do to successfully prosecute but also to prevent future crimes of sexual violence is to establish ‘SIU’s’ – specialized investigative units in all parts of the state, and this bill does that."

The bill includes several controversial items. One virtually eliminates the practice of allowing a defense attorney to interview an alleged victim before a trial.

Another provision calls for DNA samples to be taken from all people charged with a felony if the court determines that there’s probable cause to believe that the person is guilty. Allen Gilbert is the director of the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union:

(Gilbert)"Everybody seems to think that DNA is this failsafe way of determining whodunit and in fact there are all sorts of problems with DNA that range from samples that aren’t preserved correctly to samples that are thought to be from one person when they actually come from somebody else… so I think we’ve all fallen into this belief that DNA is a silver bullet and can solve all sorts of crimes and pinpoint things exactly and it really can’t."

Chairman Lippert acknowledges that there are difficulties with this provision but he says the committee wanted to keep it in the bill:

(Lippert)"We heard testimony that this might not meet the constitutional test under the Vermont Constitution and we understand that this may be taken up and will be taken up to be tested but we decided to go forward with the proposal essentially as the Senate had put it forward."

The full House is scheduled to debate the bill on Thursday.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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