Lawmaker proposes expansion of state police crime lab to fight child porn

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 6:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — With federal grants running out, Sen. Bill Diamond is proposing the state provide at least $300,000 a year in additional funds for the state police computer crimes unit that deals mostly with Internet sex crimes against children.

“The last I checked recently there are 560 pieces of evidence in child molestation, sexual assaults, sitting in a closet and they can’t be analyzed simply because we do not have enough people to do it,” the Windham Democrat said Friday. “To me that is unconscionable.”

Diamond said he wanted to present a measure that addressed all of the weaknesses he sees in current law. In addition to bolstering computer crimes funding and changing the sex offender registry law, he is proposing increased penalties for sex offenders.

He proposed a sweeping bill aimed at correcting what he believes are deficiencies in state laws aimed at addressing child sexual exploitation. At a public hearing on the bill Friday, he acknowledged the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has already addressed some of his proposals this session.

For example, his bill proposes changes in the sex offender registry but the panel is already dealing with those issues in a separate bill the committee drafted.

“We are very much in support of additional resources for the computer crimes unit,” Elizabeth Ward Saxl of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault testified at the hearing. “The impact on children of child pornography is extreme.”

She said studies show a high correlation between those that view child porn and engage in sexual violence against children. She said there is also a relationship between sexual violence against children and human trafficking.

“In 2010, there were more than 50 calls [from Maine] to the National Human Trafficking Center hot line, a more than 50 percent increase over the previous year,” Ward Saxl said. “Research shows that between 70 and 90 percent of commercially sexually exploited youth are survivors of childhood sexual abuse.”

She said there are several collaborative efforts between state and federal law enforcement agencies to address the growing problem of child sexual exploitation. Maine laws need to be improved and this legislation starts to do that, she said.

No one opposed the measure, but both committee members and other raised several concerns with the measure. Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, told the panel that while the agency recognizes the need for additional staff they are not ready to support Diamond’s proposal.

“We have requested additional resources in a supplemental budget, but for all the reasons that you all are aware of, we do not know where it stands,” he said.

Gov. Paul LePage has not submitted his non-Medicaid supplemental budget request to the Legislature, indicating he wants the Medicaid supplemental passed first. That failed to get enough votes for final passage in the Senate Thursday night and is tabled while budget talks continue.

“We are losing grant funding and that means losing some of the staff we have now,” Williams said. “We know we need to replace at least some of those positions.”

He also was concerned about some of the language in the bill that appears to limit the flexibility to shift computer crimes unit staff to other crimes when needed. He said there are times when the unit’s forensic investigators and state police detectives are needed for other important cases.

“I wouldn’t want to see that flexibility taken away because I know there are some times when you need to shift resources,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, a member of the committee. He is a retired state trooper and supports more resources for the unit.

The increased penalties in the proposal drew opposition from the Criminal Law Advisory Commission. They said current penalties, such as the mandatory minimum five-year sentence for a sex offense against a child 12 or under, are sufficient. It is a Class A crime which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

The panel will consider the measure in a work session next month.

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