Legislators Work to Beef up Laws Regarding Sex Offenders

By: Gerri L. Elder

In Vermont, convicted sex offender Michael Jacques has been criminally charged with the June kidnapping and murder of his 12-year-old niece, Brooke Bennett.

Jacques’ former probation officer, Richard Kearney, had released him from probation and is now explaining to a state Senate Judiciary Committee why he felt compelled to do so.

Fox News reported that Kearney told the committee that Jacques, 42, had served his prison term and completed the requirements of his probation, including a sex offender treatment program, prior to being released from probation. Jacques had been convicted in 1993 of kidnapping and sexual assault.

On August 7, the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee opened a series of hearings, prompted by the murder of Brooke Bennett. The focus of the hearing is on how to toughen Vermont’s sex offender laws. The committee will examine what went wrong in the state’s dealings with Michael Jacques and how laws can be revised to provide more protection to children.

The second committee hearing was held on August 8. Others are scheduled for August 28 and 29 and September 11 and 12.

Prior to the start of the committee hearings, a report compiled by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, state attorneys from thirteen counties in Vermont, and representatives of victims’ advocacy groups was released. This report outlined five proposals for new legislation regarding Vermont’s current policies on dealing with those convicted of sex crimes.

Vermont House Speaker Gaye Symington called for an independent investigation into Jacques’ early release from probation. Symington is currently in the gubernatorial race. She and other political opponents of Governor Jim Douglas have blamed his administration for Bennett’s murder.

Symington has asked Vermont’s Senator President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin to look into having an investigation of the state’s parole system conducted.

Governor Jim Douglas has already launched an investigation of his own into the apparent failure of the parole system in Jacques’ case. He has called for a special legislative session to establish a new set of state parole policies.

Douglas has specifically called for Jessica’s Law to be passed immediately. Jessica’s Law imposes a 25-year minimum prison sentence on convicted child sex offenders.

Although there has been support for Jessica’s Law, Sorrell is not convinced that it is a good idea.

According to Sorrell, Jessica’s law could possibly have the unintended effect of fewer convictions. He says that there are a lot of “iffy” cases that are problematic for prosecutors. In those cases, the criminal defense attorneys generally negotiate plea bargains.

Sorrell also thinks that Jessica’s law would force more victims to go through traumatic trials. Symington agrees and has said that victims’ rights advocates and prosecutors have said that the law would cause more harm to victims.

Symington has called for Douglas to staff additional Special Investigative Units, or SIUs, in several counties in Vermont to help direct legislative changes that will help protect children from sex offenders.