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House Committee Approves Stronger Penalties for Sex Offenses Against Minors

WASHINGTON – Despite pointed criticism from some lawmakers, the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a bipartisan bill that pushes for harsher penalties for people convicted of sex offenses against minors under 12 and authorizes millions of dollars to fight Internet crimes against children.

Sponsored by committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the Child Protection Act of 2012 (H.R. 6063) calls for $60 million a year until 2018 for task forces working to investigate Internet crimes against children. It also reinforces the need for the U.S. Justice Department to appoint a senior official as a national coordinator for child exploitation prevention and interdiction, a position first created by the PROTECT Our Children Act by Congress in 2008.

In addition, the bill widens protections for child witnesses who may be subject to intimidation or harassment, doubles to $4 million the cap on funds available to train Internet Crimes Against Children task forces, and gives U.S. Marshals the power to issue administrative subpoenas to investigate unregistered sex offenders.

Smith introduced similar legislation last year but it did not reach the full House floor for a vote. That legislation, called the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, was criticized by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association for its wide-ranging implications for online privacy.

As many as 100,000 sex offenders remain unregistered and at large in the United States, their whereabouts unknown, Smith said in his prepared introductory remarks (link to) at the committee’s session Tuesday morning.

“Today, Internet child pornography may be the fastest growing crime in America, increasing an average of 150 percent per year,” Smith said. “Every day these online criminals prey on our children with virtual anonymity.”

Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Mel Watt (D-N.C.) put up some lively opposition, saying that parts of the bill duplicated the protections offered by existing statutes. Their most strenuous objections came in response to provisions that expanded the authority of law enforcement and that appeared to weaken legal protections for people who had been accused of sex crimes but who were innocent.

They especially expressed concern about the provision broadening the authority of U.S. Marshals to issue administrative subpoenas for unregistered sex offenders, a power that Conyers called unacceptable and unnecessary.

“What is an administrative subpoena? It’s a subpoena that the government does not have to go to court to affectuate,” Conyers said.

But the biggest objection raised by Conyers, Scott, Watt and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was that the Child Protection Act appears to require persons accused of sex offenses to prove their innocence, shifting the legal burden of proof away from prosecutors, a move they called “unprecedented.”

“We have to protect the victims of crime but we have to do it in a thoughtful and deliberative way,” Scott said. “Do we want to reverse the burden of proof in this or any other case without some very, very careful examination?”

Such a provision violated the Fifth Amendment, Nadler said. “What possible justification is there for shifting the burden of proof in a criminal offense and for saying you’re guilty until proven innocent?” he asked Smith. “It seems to me unconstitutional as well as obnoxious.”

“The idea here is to protect the children and to protect the victims,” Smith replied.

Ultimately, all three amendments offered by Scott to address these objections failed to pass.

Thirty-one representatives from both parties co-sponsored the bill, which is also supported by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN), among others.

H.R. 6063 will now head to the full House for a vote. Only about 4 percent of bills that are introduced by federal legislators ever become law, according to this 2009 analysis by OpenCongress.org.

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