Victim advocates support proposed sex offender law

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(Host) For years, victims advocacy groups in Vermont have opposed long mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of sexually assaulting a minor.

But this year, the groups are supporting a new bill that allows prosecutors to seek a 25 year mandatory sentence in certain cases.

The legislation will be the first major bill considered in the new session.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The Senate Judiciary committee drafted the bill following the death last summer of 12 year old Brooke Bennett. It creates a new crime of aggravated sexual assault on a minor with a sentence of at least 25 years in jail.

Jennifer Poehlmann represents the Vermont Center for Crime Victims Services.

Her group has opposed previous efforts to impose long mandatory minimum sentences because of concerns that these sentences would result in many more cases going to trial.

She says this would happen because prosecutors would lose their ability to plea bargain a case when the alleged victim might have difficulty testifying or when the evidence wasn’t airtight. The acquittal rate for cases that do go to trial is 50%.

Poehlman supports this bill because it creates a new crime that prosecutors can use when it’s appropriate for a specific case:

(Poehlman) "Which truly does give a prosecutor just an additional tool or a menu of charges that they can consider what would be most appropriate given the victim’s ability to participate given the evidence they have so we’re strongly supportive of the bill as a whole and certainly the ability for prosecutors to use their discretion in a different manner."

Poehlman says the bill does more than just impose tougher sentences. It appropriates one and a half million dollars to fund special investigative units throughout the state and to help expand prevention programs:

(Poehlman) "I think there are a lot of provisions in this bill that will really have a significant impact on reducing truly reducing the problem."

Sarah Kenney is the public policy director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She says the bill also includes stronger oversight of sex offenders by the Department of Corrections:

(Kenney) "Once an offender completes their term of incarceration how are we going to supervise them in the community in a way that doesn’t pose a further threat to community safety so looking at specialized caseloads for probation officers using polygraph exams when folks are in the community looking at other tools that we can use to make sure people are complying with the conditions of their supervision."

The legislation also makes it more difficult for a defense attorney to interrogate an alleged victim before a trial. Vermont is one of the few states in the country that allow pre trial depositions.

This part of the bill is expected to generate some heated debate during the Senate’s review of the legislation.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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