In Washington, the state capitol is more than 300 miles from the Idaho home where the Groene-McKenzie family members were attacked, slain and abducted. But echoes from the horrific case resounded in the Olympia statehouse for months.
Evergreen State lawmakers considered dozens of bills intended to tighten the penalties and restrictions on sex offenders. In hearings that began last fall, sex-abuse victims stammered and wept as they begged legislators to stop the abuse of children.
“The Duncan case was the heart of the thing,” said Rep. Al O’Brien, a retired Seattle police sergeant who convened many of those hearings. “When I heard that thing on the news, I was on the phone with my legal counsel and the criminal justice committee, talking about where we go from here.”
“That case just stunned everybody. It just makes citizens recoil,” said Jim Hines, a Gig Harbor salesman who browbeat lawmakers for months, urging them to toughen sex offender laws. He’s now running for the Washington Senate.
Hines was horrified by the revelation that Joseph Duncan allegedly stalked his prey with the help of night-vision goggles. “It literally sends chills up your spine,” he said.
Washington laws have changed dramatically since Duncan, then 16, was arrested for rape in Pierce County in 1980. Even before this year’s changes, state law now allows “determinate-plus” sentences for many sex crimes. Under these, a criminal gets a minimum prison sentence, then gets a chance every two years to convince state officials that he’s safe enough to release. Under such a system, sex offenders can be kept in prison for the rest of their lives.
This year, lawmakers tightened things further. In many cases, sex offenses now carry a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.
“I wanted a long sentence in case we had another Duncan,” said O’Brien, D-Montlake Terrace.
Lawmakers also approved bills allowing electronic monitoring of released sex offenders, toughening penalties for failing to register with authorities, and making possession of child pornography a sex offense. They also created the crime of “criminal trespass against children,” intended as a tool to boot sex offenders lurking around swimming pools, playgrounds and parks.
For some, the changes don’t go nearly far enough. Two groups are trying to get tougher laws approved as ballot measures. One is a “one strike, you’re out” law, mandating life in prison for the worst child sex crimes.
Hines, who’s running one of the initiatives, would like to see all Level 3 sex offenders on electronic monitoring. He’d like a year in prison for any offender who fails to register, as well as a further-reaching 25-year minimum sentence.
“Quit taking these tepid half-steps,” he said. “Go with the measures that everybody knows the public wants.
Strengthening sex offender laws was high on the agenda for Idaho legislators, the governor and the state attorney general this year, and more than half a dozen new laws passed in the wake of the Duncan case.
Among them were a new “two strikes” law proposed by Attorney General Lawrence Wasden that locks up for life any designated violent sexual predator who commits a second sex offense; a new law requested by the Coeur d’Alene School Board banning sex offenders from within 500 feet of schools when children are present; and stepped-up registration requirements for sex offenders proposed by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.
Idaho lawmakers also enacted a new law specifically inspired by Shasta Groene’s case to allow as much as $25,000 in crime victim assistance payments for counseling in certain circumstances – an amount that previously was capped at $2,500.
Still, lawmakers didn’t address a key gap in Idaho’s sex offender laws: Idaho designates the worst and most dangerous offenders, but then allows them to live unsupervised in the community, or even leave the state at will. Of the 32 designated “violent sexual predators” now on the loose in Idaho, only six are supervised at all, two because they’re still on parole and four because they’re on probation.
“There are some pretty dangerous guys there that are really not being supervised,” said Thomas Hearn, a Coeur d’Alene sex offender treatment professional who also chairs the state Sex Offender Classification Board. “I think the Legislature has made good progress in lots of areas. … There was a lot of good legislation passed. There’s more they could have done.”
Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, proposed the only bill this year that looked at lifetime supervision for the worst sex offenders. That measure, House Bill 537, would have imposed a “split sentence,” with the second portion kicking in for life whenever a sex offender is released from prison. The bill also required electronic monitoring of designated violent predators when they’re out of prison.
But Clark said legal problems surfaced with his bill, and he decided to drop it and instead sign on with Kempthorne, who proposed his own wide-ranging legislation. The governor’s bill requires violent predators to register every three months and requires law enforcement to verify their addresses every 30 days. It also requires offenders to register within two days if they move, rather than 10 days.
Idaho’s new laws “are good laws, and I want to go on record as saying that,” Hearn said, “but would it have prevented Duncan? No.”