Massachusetts’ Beacon Hill was a buzz of activity last week. Just when you start to wonder if those salaries are tax payers money well spent, the boys and girls on Capital Hill do something to surprise you. Roll call for the week of July 21-25 shows the House actually punching in for 32 hours and 45 minutes. Far less ambitious was our Senate, clocking in at 14 hours and 51 minutes. In defense of the Senate, the House was voting on 6 bills, whereas the Senate had only 2 before them. While both legislative branches approved or rejected bills ranging from state tax holidays to banning the rental of pets, Governor Duval Patrick was also hard at work. On July 24, 2008 Governor Patrick signed into law, the law they said would never pass. The long awaited Massachusetts version of Jessica’s Law.
and then there were six. Massachusetts was one of the 7 remaining hold out states reluctant to adopt any version of Florida’s Jessica Law. In a nutshell the original law calls for a minimum of 25 years in prison, and s lifetime of electronic monitoring for those adults convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior against victims under the age of 12. Additionally under the Florida law rape or sexual battery of a child under the age of 12 is considered a capital offense, punishable by death or life imprisonment without parole. This of course is an oversimplification of a 15 page document. A document which those of us with no legal background would have a better shot at seeing God than comprehending. Understanding the subtle nuances or far reaching ramifications of the law were the last things on the minds of parents in Massachusetts. What we wanted was protection for our children. It’s fairly safe to say if put up for public vote, stoning of convicted child molesters would have stood a damn good chance. Why then did it take so long for the Governor’s pen to meet the paper?
Opposition to Jessica’s law has many faces, some more obvious than others. Trial lawyers dislike it claiming their jobs will be far more difficult with plea bargains off the table. Advocacy groups, along with lawyers fear lack of gray areas will allow maximum sentencing for what once would have been considered much lesser offenses. There is much tax payer concern for the added expense of additional electronic monitoring and extended jail stays of those convicted. Even with all these and other arguments in mind, voters of the state of Massachusetts showed great support for Jessica’s Law. It wasn’t until after hundreds of thousands of petitions were signed and delivered to Beacon Hill, a public calling out by Bill O’Riley himself, and much media attention, that this bill found its way to the senate. There are a few clowns in this political circus responsible for the hold up of this law. Ironically two of them were probably the major embarrassing catalysts needed to get it signed.
The title of Original Clown goes to Eugene O’Flaherty, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. This democratic senator refused to introduce the bill to the full senate. Since he alone chooses which bills move forward, Jessica’s Law stalled almost as quickly as it was introduced. When questioned by a staff member of the O’Riley Factor about his decision not to move the bill forward O’Flaherty had this to say:
“The practical effect of Jessica’s law is a chest thumping, sound tough on crime piece of legislation, when, in fact what ends up happening is prosecutors have their hands tied when it comes to plea bargains and other arrangements.”
Obviously with the passage of Jessica’s law Mr. O’Flaherty had a change of heart. It would appear public peer pressure is a very persuasive tool.
In this relay race of clowns the baton gets passed from Most Original to Most Obnoxious. James Fagan may have single-handedly brought more attention to the passing of Jessica’s law in Massachusetts than Bill O’Riley could ever have dreamed of bringing. Rep. James Fagan, a defense attorney, barely stopped short of vowing to eat small children for lunch. In a very impassioned, and widely televised speech before the house Mr. Fagan had this to say about cross examining child witnesses: “when they’re 8 years old they throw up; when they’re 12 years old, they won’t sleep; when they’re 19 years old, they’ll have nightmares and they’ll never have a relationship with anybody.” Come morning you could see clips of this on every talk show in the country.
Although it is only speculation on my part what it took to move this bill off the floor and into law was bad publicity, if the Governor needed yet a third clown he found him in Judge Moses. Judge Richard Moses has earned the title of Scariest Clown. This judge had released a previously convicted sex offender who went on to rape a 6 year old boy in a public library shortly after his release. Further inquiry into the judge’s rulings reveled this had been the third time a level 3 sex offender had been released only to reoffend. Massachusetts was getting some very well deserved bad press.
The law on the other hand was signed with little media attention. The increased cigarette tax got far more media coverage. This quietly signed law is a much scaled down version of the original. The Massachusetts bill, largely put together by the states Attorney General Martha Coakely, is said to provide prosecutors with the necessary tools to put away the most serious offenders. Calling for mandatory sentences of 10-15years for first time offenders and 20 years for repeat offenses, the bill also offered 3 new classifications constituting aggravated assault. A provision was also included granting administrative authority for the subpoena of internet records. No provisions were made with regard to minimum sentencing for rape without aggravating circumstances, and parole remains an option. Although it leaves some feeling less than satisfied, it can only be seen as an improvement over the laughable 3 year sentence provided by the previous law.
There had been much speculation on whether the bill would be sent back to the house for fine tuning, leaving many to believe it would never see the light of day again before next year’s session. It had already been over 3 years since Rep. Karen Polito had begun pushing for such legislation. One can’t help but wonder if the circus hadn’t come to town would Duval Patrick have signed on the dotted line? As with all new things it remains to be seen if the hopes and fears for this bill will be realized. What should be glaringly obvious to voters in Massachusetts right now is there are at least 3 elected officials who should be seeking employment elsewhere.