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Washington looks to toughen sex-offense laws

OLYMPIA – Frustrated by a sex offender’s alleged attack and slaying of the Groene family in North Idaho, Washington state legislators are considering tougher laws.

Some are calling for a mandatory life sentence for first-degree rape. Others say the state should consider electronic tracking of some sex offenders once they have been released.

Others, however, say the state already is one of the toughest on sex offenders. Since 2001, Washington law has allowed life incarceration for all major sex offenses, and there’s a mandatory “two strikes” law for most such crimes. Washington was the first state in the nation to commit sexual predators in civil court proceedings even after they had served their prison sentences.

The biggest problem in the Groene case, some lawmakers and defense attorneys say, is simply that the alleged murderer and kidnapper committed his crime – first-degree rape – back in 1980, long before today’s tougher standards. If Joseph Edward Duncan III committed the same crime today, they say, he easily could be kept behind bars for the rest of his life.

“The basic starting point is life in prison for most sex offenses in Washington right now,” said Dan Fessler, director of Yakima County’s public defender program.

Most defendants, he said, have only two alternatives: to try to get the victim and the prosecutor to agree to community supervision and treatment – which is rare – or to go to prison and later try to convince a hearings board that they’re not a threat to anyone. In the latter case, they still are subject to supervision by parole officers, for life.

“It’s always worth taking a look at (the laws), because this is such an egregious, revolting case,” said Sen. Steven Johnson, R-Kent. “But I think we might be stronger than some people think we are with what’s on the books now.”

“I’m not an apologist for this guy in Idaho; if he did what he’s accused of doing, then he should be punished,” said Fessler. “But you have to look at the big picture … The fact of the matter is that they (lawmakers) have created a very, very tight system now.”

Some lawmakers clearly want to see it tighter.

Rep. Al O’Brien, a former Seattle police officer who now heads the House criminal justice committee, is calling for a bill to require electronic monitoring of sex offenders after release, perhaps for life.

“If Martha Stewart can be monitored, serious sex offenders should be, too,” said O’Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace. “I don’t think I’ll get much resistance.”

He said he’d also like to make failure to register as a sex offender one of the crimes that triggers the two strikes law.

Rep. Bob Sump, R-Republic, is also calling for mandatory lifetime sentences for first-degree rapists.

“When is society going to say enough is enough?” he said in a press release.

Several lawmakers have sponsored such bills in recent years. Sump sponsored one in 2001. Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, sponsored a similar bill two years ago.

“The public defenders didn’t necessarily like it,” he said. “Some people think that one strike is too severe.” Others, he said, worried that rapists – if they knew they were already facing life in prison – would be more likely to kill their victims.

Local Sen. Bob McCaslin also sponsored a life-sentence bill for rapists.

“Bob McCaslin’s personal philosophy is they don’t get a second chance,” said McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley. “But I couldn’t even get a hearing on it (the bill).”

He said he’s skeptical that lawmakers will significantly toughen the laws.

“In the 25 years I’ve been in the Legislature, we’ve put on a lot of Band-Aids,” he said.

But other lawmakers say that with the current tough laws, small fixes are exactly what the state should be considering.

“We need to look for any type of loophole,” said Pearson. “I know there’s a real outcry about what’s going on … I can understand the outrage, and it’s a statewide outrage, not just the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area.”

In a letter to constituents, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said she shares their horror at the Groene case, but that under today’s laws, Duncan would likely either still be in prison or under lifetime supervision by community corrections officers.

Still, she wrote, the state may be able to do more, such as hiring more such officers, or requiring electronic monitoring of sex offenders under state supervision.

“I will be exploring how this type of monitoring could work in our state,” wrote Brown, D-Spokane. The state is also investing in mental-health and drug-addiction treatment, she said, in hopes of heading off pathological behavior. Washington lawmakers have also tried – unsuccessfully so far – to rein in graphic sexual violence in video games.

McCaslin said he’s skeptical that treatment will help the worst sex offenders.

“The only way you can address this is to get them off the streets, to lock them up forever,” he said. “Some people can’t be helped.”

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