AUGUSTA – In an unusual parliamentary maneuver, the House voted 68-66 Tuesday to table a bill that would have required a mandatory 25-year prison sentence for a first-time offender convicted of sex crimes against a child under 12.
The Senate sponsor of the bill better known as “Jessica’s Law” chastised his peers in the House for effectively killing the measure, saying, “I think this shows a real lack of courage.
“This is something that should be voted on and something the public expects a vote on,” said state Sen. Dean Clukey, R-Houlton.
But opponents such as state Rep. Pat Blanchette, D-Bangor, countered that the legislation was an election year gimmick being pushed by conservative national talk show hosts and that it actually could do more harm than good.
“Jessica’s Law” is named in memory of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was abducted and sexually assaulted before being brutally murdered by a convicted sex offender last year in Florida. That state has adopted a law named for her that mandates a minimum sentence of 25 years and a maximum of life in prison for first-time child sex offenders.
The Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, on which Clukey serves, was divided on the bill, with seven lawmakers opposing the measure and six supporting it in some form.
Blanchette, the House co-chair of the committee, asked House Democratic leader Glenn Cummings, D-Portland, to make the motion Tuesday to table the bill, preventing it from being further debated or voted on.
The little-used parliamentary procedure would require a two-thirds vote to bring the issue up again.
“This bill, if passed and enacted, in reality would hurt more children than it would help,” Blanchette argued.
Blanchette said many first-time sex offenders are sent to prison for long sentences that are the result of plea bargains. She and others expressed concern that with mandated minimum sentences, offenders would be more likely to ask for a trial.
A reluctance to put victimized children on the stand then could lead to fewer convictions, fewer prosecutions, and more molesters out on the street, they suggested.
“When you can’t get a district attorney to bring charges and prosecute and get a conviction, that pedophile is going to walk,” Blanchette said.
She also charged that the bill is “do-nothing feel-good legislation” pushed by “the media” and that she would not be intimidated. “This has been a process that has been driven and governed and directed by the media,” Blanchette said.
Clukey said he respects the point of view of Blanchette and those on the committee who oppose the legislation. But, he said, the measure should not be killed through a parliamentary maneuver.
“I knew it would be an uphill struggle, but I thought we would at least have the opportunity to make the case,” he said.
Cummings said in a later interview that he decided to “pull the plug” on further debate on the legislation because it would cause long, emotional debates that would detract from other issues before the Legislature.
“This has been whipped up into an emotional frenzy by conservative talk show hosts like Bill O’Reilly,” he said. “We could not have a substantive debate on the issue with that sort of thing going on.”
Radio and TV commentator and talk show host Bill O’Reilly has pushed for passage of “Jessica’s Law” in every state and devotes part of his Web site to the effort.
“We are engaged in a battle to protect young children from sexual predators,” he says on his Web page. “Many states don’t protect children from sexual predators and allow these criminals back on the street to commit these crimes again.”
O’Reilly has vowed to push for passage of legislation in all 50 states using his radio and TV shows as well as his Web site.
Cummings said he will not take the measure off the table, so it would take a two-thirds vote to override his decision and he does not believe there are enough supporters of the bill to do that. But Cummings may face pressure closer to home on the legislation.
Gov. John Baldacci told reporters he supports a minimum mandatory sentence for first-time sex offenders. He said how long that sentence needs to be is a matter of debate.
“There needs to be some sort of minimum mandatory sentence for first-time offenders,” Baldacci said. “That’s why I support the work that has been done with this bill.”
The governor said he will urge lawmakers to reconsider and pass the bill in some form that provides for a mandatory sentence.