AUGUSTA, Maine — A coalition of groups, individuals and lawmakers wants anyone convicted of a sex crime against a child under age 12 to serve a mandatory sentence of at least 25 years in prison. If the Legislature fails to pass such a bill in the session that opens in January, the coalition plans to collect signatures to put the issue on the ballot in 2013.
“We really need to take them off the street because the recidivism rate is so high,” said Ellsworth City Councilor Matthew Boucher, a member of the coalition. “They will in one form or another hurt hundreds of children over their lifetime. We really need to get a grasp on this; it’s really about protecting our children.”
Even as its members hoped the Legislature would take it up this session, the group filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday to begin the process of putting the issue, often called “Jessica’s Law” after a similar measure in Florida, on the 2013 ballot. Petitioners must get 57,277 valid signatures, 10 percent of the votes cast in 2010 for governor.
“We are ready to go forward and collect the signatures if the Legislature does not pass this during this session,” said Stavros Mendros, a former lawmaker and owner of a company that conducts petition drives.
Lawmakers have rejected the proposal twice, adopting a law in 2006 that set a 20-year sentence as a “benchmark” for judges to use in setting a sentence and requires a judge to explain why he went below or above that target sentence.
Boucher said sentences that have been actually handed down average between seven and eight years and are woefully short of the penalties he says are warranted for sexual abuse of children.
“We need to put these people away so they can’t prey on any more children,” he said.
Carroll Conley, executive director of the Maine Christian Civic League, agreed. He said the league is supporting the effort to pass the tougher penalties both in the January session and through a petition drive if that is necessary.
“We believe that any society has as its first responsibility to protect children,” he said. “This law is talking about adults committing sex crimes against children. We need to protect our children from predators.”
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, House minority leader, has opposed the legislation in the past and said it would face opposition if allowed into the session. She has not heard any request to allow the bill into the session.
“We passed our own version of Jessica’s Law by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority,” she said. “I would have to be convinced that is not working,”
Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the lead Democrat on the Criminal Justice Committee and a former co-chairwoman of the panel, said mandatory sentences are a bad idea with unintended consequences.
“I am not a supporter of mandatory penalties,” she said. “I believe the judges ought to have the discretion in sentencing.”
An example of an unintended consequence could be a situation in which a victim has been seriously traumatized and can’t testify, and instead of some punishment through a plea bargain, the perpetrator could be freed to offend again.
Rep. Tyler Clark, R-Easton, also a member of the coalition, said he supports the coalition efforts and will support the measure if it is allowed into the session. He serves on the Appropriations Committee and acknowledged any measure with a price tag will be difficult to fund as millions of dollars in spending cuts are being made.
“In all of government, there needs to be priorities,” he said. “That includes crimes.”
Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, co-chairman of the panel, said he would support the bill if it is allowed into the session. He said he is not part of the coalition, although he supports its goal.
Mendros said he believes the measure will be allowed into the session and that there will be enough support to pass it. But no one in Senate President Kevin Raye’s office was aware of a request. Raye is chairman of the legislative council that would have to vote to allow consideration of the after-deadline request for a new bill.
“If we have to get the signatures, I think we will get them in plenty of time to file and get it on the ballot,” Mendros said.”We are better organized than we were last time.”
In 2009, Mendros led an effort to put the question on the ballot for 2010, but collected only about 30,000 signatures, well short of the minimum. He also said the measure has the support of Gov. Paul LePage, but the governor’s legal counsel, Dan Billings, said he could not confirm that.