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Children's Safety and Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2006

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


CHILDREN'S SAFETY AND VIOLENT CRIME REDUCTION ACT OF 2006 -- (Senate - July 20, 2006)

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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, in May, the Senate passed the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act to standardize and strengthen registration and monitoring of sex offenders nationwide. Since its passage, the House and Senate have worked closely to resolve their differences and to improve the overall quality of the legislation. The bill before us today contains difficult compromises, but it has achieved that goal.

This legislation is critically important to safeguard victims of sexual abuse from harm. It will help protect innocent people from violent offenses. It recognizes the victims and all the suffering both they and their families have endured.

With this legislation, we are recognizing the loss of Molly Bish from Warren, MA. At 16, Molly was abducted from her position as a lifeguard, and her family endured terrible uncertainty until her remains were found 3 years later. Molly was a typical teenager who took great joy from life. Her nickname was Tigger, because she was always on the move. She is survived by her parents, John and Magi Bish; her sister, Heather; and her brother, John, Jr., who work every day to keep children safe, honoring her life and her legacy.

With this bill, we also remember with sadness another Massachusetts resident, Alexandra Zapp. Ally was 30 years old when she was attacked and murdered in a public restroom by a repeat sex offender in Bridgewater, MA, in 2002. Ally's friends described her as a strong, smart, and independent woman. She had worked at the USA Sailing Association of Portsmouth, RI, where she was a keelboat training coordinator. Ally is survived by her mother and sister, Andrea and Caroline, and her father and stepmother, Ray and Linda. This legislation is dedicated to her memory, along with the memories of Molly Bish and the many other victims of terrible crimes.

Several changes have been made to this legislation as a result of our work with the House. It is important to make sure that information on offenders who pose a potential threat is available to the public at large, and this bill provides for Internet listing and community notification about such individuals.

At the same time, in order for the registry to be effective, it should be targeted toward those who present the highest risk to our communities. The current version takes a more sweeping approach toward juvenile offenders by expanding their registration requirements. The Senate bill allowed each State to determine whether a juvenile should be included on the registry. This compromise allows some offenders over 14 to be included on registries, but only if they have been convicted of very serious offenses. For juveniles, the public notification provision in this bill is harsh given their low rate of recidivism, which is less than 8 percent according to the most recent studies. For this reason, it is especially important that the bill includes funding for treatment of juvenile offenders. These provisions recognize that juvenile offenders, who have much lower rates of recidivism and have been shown to be much more amenable to treatment than their adult counterparts, shouldn't be lumped together with adult offenders.

The bill also provides increased funding for programs to prevent these offenses before they occur. It also authorizes funding for sex offender treatment and management within the Federal prison system. These provisions will be helpful in reducing the future risks to society by convicted sex offenders. If Congress is serious about addressing this problem, it must commit itself to fully funding the legislation.

All States currently have registration requirements for sex offenders, but this bill will create a system of national tracking and accountability that preserves the ability of individual States to provide additional procedures to assure the accuracy and usefulness of the registries.

Massachusetts has a system that works. We are already doing most of what this bill requires, but our system goes beyond these basic requirements by providing individualized risk assessments of each sex offender who goes on the registry. These individual assessments, combined with hearings allowing offenders to challenge their classification, help ensure that States like Massachusetts can provide the highest quality of information on potential threats to the community while respecting the tremendous impact that community notification can have on offenders' lives. I am pleased that this legislation respects the right of individual States to innovate in this area and does not penalize States who go the extra mile to improve their registries.

For this reason, section 125 of the compromise is very important. Each State will face challenges in the implementation of these new Federal requirements, and States should not be penalized if exact compliance with the act's requirements would place the State in violation of its constitution or an interpretation of the State's constitution by its highest court.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has concluded that offenders are entitled to procedural due process before being classified at a particular risk level and before personal information about them is disseminated to the public. Massachusetts has been vigilant in implementing a comprehensive and effective sex offender registry, and it should not lose much needed Federal funding where there is a demonstrated inability to comply with certain provisions of this new Federal law.

No State should be penalized and lose critical Federal funding for law enforcement programs as long as reasonable efforts are under way to implement procedures consistent with the purposes of the act. It is essential that the Federal Government continue to collaborate and to provide support for State and local governments, including the prevention, intervention, and enforcement of antigang and antidrug activities as a result of this bill.

At the same time, the new mandatory minimum sentences in the act aren't justified by any empirical data or sound policy. Mandatory minimums prevent prosecutors and judges from doing what they do best--making individual determinations on sentencing, based on the circumstances of individual cases. With more than 2 million Americans in prison or jail--including 12 percent of all African-American men between the ages of 20 and 34--no one can seriously argue that there is an epidemic of leniency in Federal sentencing. This latest batch of mandatory minimums undermines more than two decades of legislative work devoted to striking a sensible balance between consistent sentencing and the need to provide judges with the discretion to make sure each sentence fits the crime.

Although it is important to have strong penalties for crimes against children, I have major reservations about the broad expansion of the death penalty in this compromised legislation. It is clear that continued imposition of the death penalty will inevitably lead to the wrongful execution of more and more people. Justice Marshall, in particular, wrote powerfully on this issue. He believed that if our citizens knew the truth about the death penalty, ``its disproportionate imposition on racial minorities and the poor, its utter failure to deter crime, and the continuing likelihood of executing the innocent,'' it would be rejected as morally reprehensible.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles--persons 17 years old or younger. The Court's ruling was significant. It was long past time to erase that stain from our human rights record. The basic injustice of the death penalty is obvious. Experience shows that imposition of the death penalty inevitably leads to wrongful executions. Many of us are concerned about the racial disparities in the imposition of capital punishment and the wide disparities in the State in its application. The unequal, unfair, arbitray, and discriminatory use of the death penalty is completely contrary to our Nation's commitment to fairness and equal justice for all, and we need to do all we can to correct this fundamental flaw.

Finally, the national registry of substantiated cases of child abuse in this bill should not be implemented until Congress has a full understanding of its scope and effectiveness. The proposed registry raises serious implementation challenges and could create an additional and unnecessary burden for States. Not all States maintain the same registry information, and most States maintain different rules on disclosure. Tribal entities, which are included in this proposed registry, currently maintain no registries at all.

I am concerned that this registry raises serious privacy concerns by including information on cases without the opportunity for due process. For this reason, it is important that the study on establishing data collection standards be completed before such a registry is established. Current standards for inclusion in child abuse registries vary greatly, with some requiring credible evidence and others requiring no standard other than the judgment of the case worker.

During the most recent reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, we improved current child abuse systems to ensure that law enforcement has the information it needs to pursue and prosecute cases.

A new provision was added to require States to ``disclose confidential information to any Federal, State, or local government entity, or any agent of such entity, which has a need for such information in order to carry out its responsibilities under law to protect children from abuse and neglect.'' Rather than developing additional registries and reporting requirements, States need Federal assistance to effectively carry out their roles and responsibilities under CAPTA. I am concerned that this new registry will have limited value in improving or standardizing State recordkeeping for child abuse and neglect cases.

Despite these provisions, I commend the work that has been done on this bill. Without further delay, it is important that we get this bill to the President so that it can be signed on July 27th, the 25th anniversary of the abduction of Adam Walsh, and to honor all of the work his parents have done in his memory to protect children in communities across the country.

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