Debate escalates over tougher sex offender laws

07/14/08 5:50PM By Bob Kinzel
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AP Photo/T.Talbot
(Host) The debate among Vermont's political leaders about tougher laws for convicted sex offenders continues to escalate following the kidnapping and murder of Brooke Bennett.

Lt. Governor Brian Dubie is asking Governor Jim Douglas to call a special Legislative session next month to consider a package of criminal justice reforms.

But Democratic leaders are backing a different approach.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) In many ways, this is a debate about public policy and about the process that should be used to consider major changes to existing laws.

On one side is Republican incumbent Lt. Governor Brian Dubie.  Dubie is asking Governor Jim Douglas to convene a special session of the Legislature this summer.

Dubie wants lawmakers to conduct a comprehensive review of the state's criminal justice system, adopt a 25 year mandatory minimum jail sentence for people convicted of sexually assaulting a child, expand the scope of the state's sex offender's registry and beef up funding for special investigative units.

He also wants the Legislature to pass a civil commitment law that would allow the state to keep a convicted offender in jail beyond their sentence if the person doesn't successfully complete a treatment program.

Dubie says the time for action is now:

(Dubie) "What I'm suggesting is that now is the time to send a message that we're not going to accept violent sexual crime against women or children in our state and a 25 year minimum mandatory sentence sends that message."

Senate President Peter Shumlin doesn't support a special session at this time.  He says little will be accomplished in "a panic two day session."  

Instead, he wants the Senate Judiciary committee to hold a series of hearings this summer and fall to take a detailed look at this particular case and all the issues related to it. The panel would then issue a report for lawmakers to consider in January:

(Shumlin) "There's a distinction between sending a message and getting things done- the message is we are all horrified this is a terrible terrible crime that happened to Brooke Bennett and none of us want this to ever happen again the specific however are more complex."

Governor Douglas is the only person who can bring lawmakers back to Montpelier in a special session and it appears unlikely that he will.

The governor's press secretary, Jason Gibbs says Douglas won't call for a special session unless Republican and Democratic leaders agree ahead of time on a package of reforms. Otherwise Gibbs says the special session would be a waste of time.

For VPR News I'm Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

Photo: Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie holds a news conference in Montpelier, Vt., Monday, July 14, 2008.  (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

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