Brooke’s Law passed in Vermont

Vermont’s new sex crime law is getting positive reviews from some citizens who worked hard to make it a reality.

The new omnibus sex crime law dedicated to Brooke Bennett is a compromise that does not include everything everyone wanted, but even critics agree it improves protection for children and prosecution of predators.

“I’m proud to say this bill will make Vermont an even safer place,” said Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vermont.

The governor and many others agree the sex crime bill signed this week will make Vermont safer for children and tougher on child molesters like Michael Jacques.

Provisions include:

  • Expanded educational prevention programs in schools and communities
  • Expanded treatment of child and adult offenders
  • Expanded background checks for employees who work with children, the disabled and elderly
  • Improved supervision of convicted sex offenders
  • More than $1.5 million to create additional special sex crime investigation units around the state
  • An expanded DNA registry that will take samples from anyone charged with a felony

Vt. Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna says creating the new sex crime units are the most important part of the law.

“Which will investigate these cases which will provide expertise. The expansion and funding of those units is really important. I think Vermonters are going to see a tremendous difference there,” Hanna said.

Not included:

  • Civil confinement units to hold convicted sex offenders beyond their prison term if they are psychiatrically diagnosed as a public threat
  • Allowing juries to learn about prior sex convictions of sex offenders on trial for new charges

“That didn’t end up getting worked into the bill because of concerns from lawyers about that,” Hanna said.

Also not included is a Jessica’s law to create a 25-year mandatory minimum jail term for aggravated sexual assault on a child. But there was a compromise and the bill does include a 25-year mandatory minimum at prosecutor’s discretion.

“I would give this probably a B-plus,” said Paul Beaudry, a radio talk show host who led a petition drive demanding a mandatory Jessica’s law.

He says leaving the decision to prosecutors isn’t what he wanted, but it’s acceptable.

“The mandatory minimum part I can live with like any other bill, but for the most part, after this three-year fight, I’m so happy that it’s finally, we’re going to get something,” Beaudry said.

Also not included is a ban on pretrial depositions of child sex crime victims, which are banned in most states. In Vermont, judges will determine when children can be deposed.

Also not included is an outright ban on deferred sentences for sex crimes. They will be permitted at the discretion of prosecutors and judges. But the records of deferred sex crime convictions will no longer be automatically destroyed. Instead those records will be maintained with state authorities for limited use if the offender commits another sex crime.

Hanna says the bill does not guarantee prevention of future Brooke Bennett tragedies but it will help.

“It’s extremely hard to ultimately stop this kind of behavior,” Hanna said. “The trick is to stop it early and hold offenders accountable early because murder, the kind of murder we saw in the Brooke Bennett case, usually comes after many, many years of offending.”

One other item that is not in the bill is the expansion of the sex offender registry to make it more visible and user-friendly for the public. That is an area lawmakers hope to address in another bill later this session.

“25% of all sex offenders re-offend within 15 years”

……..Sarah Tofte

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