House and Senate work for compromise on Safe Communities bill

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(Host) Vermont House and Senate leaders say they’re committed to passing legislation to combat crimes of sexual violence.

But they’ll have to overcome some key differences to reach an agreement.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel explains

(Kinzel) As the Legislature enters its final weeks, negotiators from the House and Senate will try to reach a compromise on the so called Safe Communities bill.

The legislation includes tougher sentences for a variety of sex crimes, it expands the number of special investigative units operating in the state and it appropriates additional funds for prevention programs.

However, there are several key differences in the House and Senate bills.

One is mandatory minimum sentences.

The Senate included a ten-year sentence for anyone convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

The House rejected this approach. House Judiciary chairman Bill Lippert isn’t sure how this issue is going to be resolved:

(Lippert) “The testimony we heard from all prosecutors and victims representatives was that mandatory minimums were not the preferred way nor the best statutory way to achieve safer communities around crimes of sexual violence.”

(Kinzel) The two chambers are also divided over a plan to expand the state’s sex offenders’ registry to include people who are convicted of other violent crimes.

Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears thinks it’s a good idea and it would make Vermont the first state in the country to take this approach:

(Sears) “To include folks who murder other people kidnap people with a death resulting feeling that if we’ve got to worry about sex offenders who are violent we also ought to worry about other violent offenders who might not act out sexually but at least they are certainly dangerous.”

(Kinzel) The Senate also included a provision in their bill that adopts the federal rules of evidence at the state level. This means that a person’s prior criminal record can be introduced in a new trial. Sears admits the plan raises some constitutional issues.

(Sears) “That’s another addition that we believe will improve prosecutors ability to convict some of these folks who have repeatedly molested children. It’s an interesting separation of powers issue. I’m in the Legislature, so I support the Legislature’s right to make rules.”

(Kinzel) Despite these and other differences, House Judiciary chairman Lippert is confident that a final compromise will be reached.

(Lippert) “I think this will be when we work our way through conference committee which I’m confident we will I think this rates as one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation to end crimes of sexual violence that the Vermont has ever put together.”

(Kinzel) The conference committee is expected to examine the areas of agreement between the two chambers before it focuses on the disagreements.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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