DENVER – Democrat legislators have pushed a liberal social agenda this year – from unprecedented new gun control laws to repealing adultery and morality laws. Now, they’ve killed a bill to strengthen criminal penalties against child sex offenders — and proffered bills that would protect the rights of such criminals.
Republicans fought back this week – and won an amendment to protect children on one Democrat’s bill.
“This (legislative) body has leaned toward more leniency than locking these offenders up,” declared former House Speaker Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch.
House Bill 1149 to enact “Jessica’s Law,” sponsored by state Rep. Libby Szabo (R-Arvada) ignited a firestorm of national media attention after it was extinguished by the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
The bill would have required a 25-year sentence for criminals convicted of sexual assault against children, who are 14 years old and younger, by a perpetrator who is 9 years older than the victim.
Colorado is one of five states which have not adopted the law named in memory of Jessica Lundford, who at age 9 was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and buried alive to die in 2005 by a convicted sex offender who was on parole in Florida.
“I’m fairly certain that many of the votes (against the bill) were in the belief that the current laws that we have on the books are the harshest in the country,” asserted the committee chair state Rep. Su Ryden.
Not only did the Ryden vote against “Jessica’s Law,” the Aurora Democrat had drafted a bill to ease criminal penalties for convicted child sex offenders.
Under current law, convicted sexual offenders are sentenced to 2 to 24 years, depending on the crime, and upon release may be on monitored parole for life.
Asked about the status of Ryden’s bill, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver) repeated the title, “A bill concerning parole for sex offenders serving an indeterminate sentence.”
“Some people are still working on bills and they’ll be introduced later. I don’t know if that’s one of them,” said Ferrandino who has approval over late bills.
Ryden did not return calls to discuss the bill to ease penalties for sexual offenders.
State Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder) sponsored a bill that would ensure that those charged with crimes are presumed innocent, granted bail and released from jail before trial – with the exception a few crimes that didn’t qualify for the jail release. Not on that list were sexual crimes against children.
“The basic purpose of this bill is to make sure that we are not holding people in jail who have not been found guilty when they do not present a risk of flight or risk to public safety,” declared Levy of House Bill 1236.
She said the bill would assist judges in making decisions to grant or deny bail to those charged with criminal offenses. It includes a list of bail exemptions such as violent crimes committed by those with previous convictions, pending trial and during parole or probation.
The bill sparked a passionate exchange between Levy and Republicans Szabo and McNulty.
“Here in the legislature we have an obligation to protect our children from sexual predators,” declared Szabo, who proposed amending the list of bail exemptions to include sexual crimes against children, ages 14 and younger.
“What Rep. Szabo is proposing to do would require people, who have been charged with certain offenses, to be held in jail until trial,” argued Levy in opposition to the amendment. “That violates the presumption of innocence.”
McNulty countered that the amendment would only add sex crimes against children to the list of bail-exempt crimes – and release wouldn’t be denied until after a hearing before a judge.
“This amendment is a very clever ‘gotcha’ amendment intended to put people on record,” fumed Levy, who claimed McNulty and Szabo were playing partisan politics.
That accusation, McNulty said, “is shameful.”
“This is an issue that is personal to me and my family,” said McNulty, who sponsored the first bill to enact “Jessica’s Law” in 2007. He recalled that a woman, who testified in favor of the bill, was upset by an aggressive cross examination by Levy who sat on the House Judicial Committee.
“Her child had been molested, you had her in tears,” said McNulty. “You had her in tears.”
Levy didn’t respond to McNulty’s comments, but she withdrew her objections to Szabo’s amendment.
The bill passed the House nearly unanimously primarily because of the amendment. Republican state Rep. Justin Everett (R-Littleton) was the lone vote against it.
“It doesn’t offer our families and children the full protection that Jessica’s law would have created, but it keeps predators off our streets a little longer,” said Szabo. “It’s a small step in the right direction.”