Spotlight on Vermont: Brooke Bennett & Jessica's Law
UPDATE: 7/08/08 2:53 am EST
Public outrage over the death of Brooke Bennett has the residents of Vermont circulating petitions to get Jessica's Law on individual town's November ballots. Other than indicating that the forms must be returned to each town's clerk by September 15th, no further details are available.
Read the notice here: http://www.fox44.net/Global/story.asp?S=8630361
State Senator Dick Sears, a Democrat from Bennington, Vermont, and Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has apparently received "dozens of emails" blaming the State of Vermont for Brooke Bennett's death. The 12 year olds' body was discovered this past Wednesday, one week after she was last seen with her uncle, Michael Jacques, at a convenience store in Randolph, VT. Jacques, a convicted sex offender, has since been arrested on charges of kidnapping Brooke, and on charges of aggravated sexual assault against another minor child. No one has been charged with murdering Brooke, and prosecutors in the case must wait for autopsy results to determine how Brooke died before proceeding with any possible additional charges against Jacques.
Vermont is one of 10 states that has failed to enact Jessica's Law, a 2005 Florida law designed to punish sex offenders and reduce their ability to re-offend. The law is named after Jessica Lunsford and was enacted due to the public's outrage over Jessica's death. Jessica was raped and murdered in Florida, in 2005, by John Couey, a previously convicted sex-offender.
Among the key provisions of the law is a 25 year mandatory sentence apparently objected to by most State of Vermont prosecutors and one of the reasons Vermont's Legislature has not moved to pass Jessica's Law. The law however has a serious loop-hole in that it does not require released sex offenders who are homeless to register with a state's Sex Offender Registry.
Sears claims now that "Rushing to pass Jessica's Law is not the answer,...".
"I can't tell you how frustrating it is to hear Jessica's Law, as if that would have prevented this," he said. "We look for simple fixes to solve really complex and troubling changes in our society."
House Speaker and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gaye Symington said she too is opposed to the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence in Jessica's Law.
"When we looked at the question of long, mandatory sentences we found that the result was less safe communities. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but offenders aren't as likely to plea," Symington said. "They won't admit to the crime. These crimes are hard to prove because there are rarely any witnesses. The end result is that these criminals go free. They are not on the sex offender registry."
Sears said he rejects the notion that the state is lenient with sex offenders. Since 2004, several laws have been passed to strengthen penalties and better protect children.
"We've passed a lot of bills to try to deal with this problem," he said. "Most of them are either stronger than most states or we're along with them."
Vermont laws now require offenders who refuse treatment while incarcerated and have been convicted of certain offenses to check in with the Department of Corrections every 30 days after being released from prison.
In addition, the offender must notify the state prior to any change in residency, prior to enrolling in or separating from a post-secondary educational institution, within one day of any change in a place of employment and register any car operated by the offender prior to driving it.
In 2006, a law was passed placing a presumptive 10-year minimum sentence. Any sentence less than five years would require a judge to state on the record why the offender's sentence was reduced.
But Vermont does not have a 25-year mandatory sentence for sex offenses, which is the backbone of Jessica's Law, critics complain.
One reason the state has not moved to the 25-year minimum sentence is because most prosecutors have opposed it.
They say a 25-year minimum would lead to more court trials and more witnesses having to take the stand. Many of those cases could be lost because of shaky witnesses, allowing offenders to go free, without supervision, they argue.
Gibbs said laws that were in place at the time Jacques was convicted as a sex offender were not sufficiently enforced.
The Department of Corrections had suggested that Jacques not be put on parole, but Orange County District Court Judge Amy Davenport used her "discretion" to release him, he said.
"In this particular case it is the judicial system that failed Brooke Bennett. There is just no reason why an individual like Mr. Jacques ... should have spent only four years in jail," Gibbs said. "The most important public policy evaluation that must be done, from the governor's point of view, is to determine what steps future legislatures can take to prevent the judiciary from failing another young Vermonter in the future."
Had Jacques been convicted after the new laws were enacted in 2006, he would have faced the 10-year presumptive minimum sentence, Sears said.
"A lot has changed since he was convicted, obviously," Sears said.
Sears said he has spoken with Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie about the case, and plans to meet with Dubie to review the state's laws.
"We're going to try to meet next week and sit down and review Vermont's laws and see where we should be making improvements," Sears said. "It's looking at what makes sense and what you can get through a legislative body. It was like pulling teeth to get any mandatory minimum sentence."
Gibbs said Douglas expects elements of Jessica's Law, even the 25-year minimum sentence, to be on the table.
"He is open to having this discussion with the Legislature and with prosecutors. Ultimately, Vermont has to come to an agreement on whether those mandatory minimums are the most effective way to prosecute and punish sex offenders," Gibbs said.
See related NP stories here:
(Correction: Sex Offenders who register with a state's Sex Offender Registry as homeless are not required to give an address).