House gives preliminary approval to sex offender legislation

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(Host) The Vermont House has given its preliminary approval to legislation that supporters say will toughen penalties and expand the prosecution of sex offenders.

By a vote of 77-59, the House rejected an effort to include a civil commitment provision in the legislation.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) There was very little debate over the merits of the basic legislation being proposed by the House Judiciary committee.

The bill increases minimum sentences for people convicted of sexual assault and includes a life sentence for these crimes. This allows the state to keep dangerous criminals in jail indefinitely if they don’t participate in treatment programs, violate conditions of their release or if they’re judged to be a high risk to public safety.

The legislation also expands special investigative units throughout the state, increases prevention efforts and makes treatment programs available to virtually all sex offenders.

House Judiciary chairman Bill Lippert said the bill is a comprehensive approach to a difficult issue.

(Lippert) “We truly believe when you hear these proposals and you adopt these proposals Vermont will be set on a new path to ending sexual violence in the state of Vermont. These proposals are comprehensive they prepare us for a new day in ending sexual violence.”

(Kinzel) The real debate came over an amendment that would allow the state to keep people, who are currently in jail, in custody after their sentence is over, if the person is deemed to pose a significant risk to public safety. It’s a process known as civil commitment.

Rutland Rep. Tom DePoy is the sponsor of the amendment. He says the original bill doesn’t go far enough to protect the public:

(DePoy) “It doesn’t address the violent sex offenders scheduled to be released into one of our communities in this state in a few short years of the future. And I’ve heard of no alternate proposal that would deal with these people. Do you want these guys going into your community with just a warning?”

(Kinzel) Opponents of the amendment argued the plan was an effort to keep people in jail for a crime that they might commit in the future. Northfield Rep. Ann Donahue:

(Donahue) “This is simply about what is right and wrong for us here in Vermont. Imprisoning someone on the basis of the fears of a crime they might commit in the future assaults the very essence of our commitment to a just society. This is wrong. I urge you to vote your conscience on our fundamental rights in free nation, established more than 200 years ago not to react to a public fear of the day.”

(Kinzel) The measure will now come up final approval in the House on Wednesday.

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

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