State’s prosecutors offer package of reforms to sex offender laws

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(Host) Attorney General Bill Sorrell and most of Vermont’s state’s attorneys are backing a package of criminal justice reforms designed to make it easier to prosecute sex crimes.

The package doesn’t include longer mandatory minimum sentences for convicted child sex offenders because some members of the group believe this issue needs more study.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The package of reforms is known as the "Putting Victims First" initiative.

The plan includes: full funding of all county sex offender investigative units, the elimination of pretrial depositions of victims, collecting DNA samples of all people charged with a felony, greater supervision of convicted sex offenders, and allowing a defendant’s prior conviction for a sex crime to be admissible in court.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell says adoption of the package is the most effective way to crack down on sex offenders.

(Sorrell) “We think with these kinds of changes, with these kinds of tools, we’re going to be able to do our jobs much more effectively. We’re going to get more convictions. We’re going to get longer sentences because we’re not going to be dealing from positions of weakness."

(Kinzel) The coalition of state’s attorneys couldn’t agree on the need to adopt a so-called Jessica’s law. That’s a law that imposes a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for people convicted of sexually abusing a child.

Sorrell says lawmakers should look at this issue next winter. But he says it’s not a proposal that can be considered in a short special session.

(Sorrell) “If there is going to be a look at Jessica’s law where you do go to other states and talk to prosecutors, and if you’re going to talk to prosecutors you’re going to want to talk to victims’ advocates in other states and see what they think. Look at conviction rates and are acquittal rates up or are prosecutors plea bargaining down cases. … That stuff you’re not going to be able to do if you’re really going to look seriously at it in a one-day session."

(Kinzel) Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage says victims shouldn’t be forced to answer questions from defense lawyers before a trial. She thinks it’s difficult for victims to relive their case before the trial and during it.

(Marthage) “In Bennington County, we have per capita one of the highest in the state rates of child sex offenders and we routinely run into victims that cannot get through a deposition – not that they’re not cooperative. They can’t do it. They break down and the whole trial comes to a stop. … I want to see longer sentences, but it’s not going to matter what the sentence is if I can’t get to a trial. It’s not going to matter."

(Kinzel) The group will present its plan to the Senate Judiciary committee at a special hearing on Friday.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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