Wednesday, November 12
BENNINGTON — Vermont state senators will reveal recommended changes to the state's sex offender laws today, but five issues discussed over the months-long process will not be included in a 34-point plan, according to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, announced several weeks ago that the committee would seek a new charge — aggravated sexual assault on a child under 16 — that would allow prosecutors to seek a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence at their discretion.

34 recommendations

The new law, and 33 other recommendations, are included in a 34-page document the Judiciary Committee will hand over to Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, in Montpelier today. The document also contains a scathing account of Michael Jacques' 23-year criminal history in Vermont.

Jacques, 42, is charged in the June rape and killing of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett. Police say the young girl from Braintree was sexually assaulted and killed by Jacques, her uncle. He has been indicted by a federal grand jury and could face the death penalty.

Many Vermonters, including Gov. James Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, clamored for the Legislature to pass additional measures to protect children from sexual predators following Bennett's death.

The subsequent calls for stronger laws triggered Shumlin to task the Senate Judiciary Committee with reviewing existing laws and offering possible revisions. Lawmakers resisted calls from Douglas to meet immediately in a special legislative session to approve some measures.

In fact, Sears said from the outset that the committee would not spend time looking into two ideas backed by Douglas — civil confinement and the death penalty. Civil confinement would allow the state to hold certain sex offenders in prison beyond their sentences. Neither idea is included in the document.

Three other ideas have also been excluded from the Judiciary Committee's recommendations, including "judicial accountability," the federal Adam Walsh Act of 2005, and the idea of allowing a defendant's prior bad acts to be accessible to law enforcement and admissible in court, Sears said.

Not all members of the committee supported an enhanced judicial accountability measure that would allow the General Assembly to vote by roll call when voting to retain judges, Sears said. Retention votes are now done by secret ballot. Sears said he personally supports the idea, and will likely introduce the idea as separate legislation.

The Adam Walsh Act requires state sex offender registries to meet federal requirements. States not in compliance face losses in federal funding. But Sears said the cost of retooling the registry will cost about $1 million, while the loss in federal funding will amount to about $37,000. Sears said he supports the idea of the federal act, but the state will need to address the issue in separate legislation at another time.

According to Sears, several states have tried to comply, only to have their revised registries rejected. He said Nevada's plan was thrown out by the state's Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

"The evidence is that, thus far, no state has been able to comply," Sears said.

Sears said he will ask the Douglas administration to allocate $30,000 to $50,000 in funding in the annual budget adjustment to begin upgrading the sex offender registry.

Attorney General William Sorrell and most counties' state's attorneys across the state said they would like greater access for prosecutors and police to the records of prior convictions committed by people charged with sex crimes. However, the idea was not unanimously approved by the committee.

"The committee wasn't convinced that that was a good idea," Sears said.

The idea is also likely to be introduced as separate legislation, Sears said.

The Judiciary Committee is set to meet again on Dec. 18 to begin working on the final legislation. The package will be introduced during the first full week of the new legislative session in January, and will likely be the first bill taken up on the Senate floor, Sears said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com