Initiative to target pedophiles

SALEM, Ore. – Crime victim advocates and others have begun gathering signatures for a ballot measure to impose mandatory 25-year prison terms on adults who rape or commit other sexual abuse against children under the age of 12.

The proposed initiative, aimed at the November ballot, is designed to protect society’s most vulnerable people from violent sex abuse, one of the measure’s chief sponsors says.

“Oregonians are fed up with the light sentences that sexual predators are getting under current law,” said Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro.

Starr said thousands of petition sheets have been mailed to volunteers across the state asking them to help collect signatures for the new initiative, which sponsors have dubbed “Jessica’s Law for Oregon.”

The proposal is patterned after a Florida law that was approved last year after the Florida slaying of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. A convicted sex offender is charged with kidnapping and murder in that case.

The Oregon initiative would impose minimum 25-year prison terms without chance of parole for people over 18 who commit rape, sodomy, illegal sexual penetration and kidnapping against young children.

The minimum prison term for the crimes under current law is eight years and four months.

Even though the signature-gathering campaign is just getting started, the proposed initiative is drawing opposition from the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

John Hummel, a Bend attorney who lobbies for the association, said that in many cases involving sex crimes against children, a 25-year prison term isn’t too severe.

“But if an 18-year-old kid with a mental disability touches a girl in the neighborhood, does he deserve 25 years in prison? The answer is ‘no,'” Hummel said. “The judge should have the ability to give a lesser sentence, if he thinks that’s appropriate.”

Hummel also said the measure, with its aim of keeping sex offenders behind bars for longer periods of time, would represent a “poor use” of limited state dollars.

One state estimate is that about 150 convictions would come under the measure every two years, although legislative fiscal analysts who studied a similar proposal last year said it’s difficult to come up with a good cost estimate.

Steve Doell, president of Crime Victims United, said it’s generally accepted that it costs about $25,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate, and most Oregon taxpayers would be willing to bear the extra costs.

“You cannot cure these people, and as long as they are on the streets, they are creating new victims,” Doell said. “The question voters will have to ask themselves is: is it worth $25,000 a year (per inmate) to keep these guys off the street?”

Backers will need to collect 75,000 petition signatures by July to put the proposal on the November 2006 ballot.