- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006

RICHMOND — Gov. Timothy M. Kaine yesterday signed a dozen bills into law that target sexually violent predators by increasing mandatory prison sentences, strengthening monitoring and giving the state more power to keep offenders in mental health facilities after their prison terms are completed.

“This is a very comprehensive effort,” said Mr. Kaine, a Democrat who was surrounded by Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican, and a bipartisan group of legislators at the bill-signing ceremony. “I feel this is a very positive step for crime victims and the prevention of crime.”

The measures came from 65 recommendations the Virginia State Crime Commission handed the legislature after studying the issue for over a year. Virginia adds about 1,100 new sex offenders to its sex-offender registry each year, the governor’s office said yesterday.

As of July 1, the mandatory sentence for anyone who molests a child increases from five years to 25 years, and a second conviction results in a mandatory life sentence.

“We crush them,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican who pushed for the law. “The stakes are high when you start talking about putting someone in jail for life.”

Mr. McDonnell agreed. “These people have to be kept off the street for a longer period of time. This is not only good public policy, but it will actually save lives and keep people safe.”

The other new laws make it mandatory for persons convicted of a serious sexual offense to wear electronic-tracking devices from three years to life, strengthens the state’s sex-offender registry and gives the state more power to civilly commit to a mental health facility those offenders still deemed a threat after their prison terms are up.

Despite the bipartisan showing, the looming budget dispute popped up in e-mails a couple of House Republicans sent shortly after the bill-signing ceremony.

In his e-mail, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith questioned whether the Senate’s proposed budget sets aside enough money to support the new programs.

“If we want this legislation to work, we’ve got to make the financial commitment necessary to house those who qualify for it,” the Salem Republican stated in the e-mail. “This year, the House stands alone in continuing its commitment to these reforms by funding more beds [300] for the civil commitment program and strengthening the Sex Offender Registry.”

The House plans calls for almost $30 million over the biennium, while the Senate plan calls for about $21 million, according to an e-mail sent by Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican.

The Senate wants to use the money to fund a 100-bed treatment center and a conditional-release program modeled after one in Texas. The program would track offenders with electronic devices and use psychological tests to monitor them. The Senate has voiced some concern over how much it would cost to keep offenders in a 300-bed facility.

“Having researched the Texas model, I doubt that the people of Virginia, regardless of [electronic tracking devices] and psychological testing, want these violent predators living in group homes in their neighborhoods,” Mr. Hamilton said in the e-mail.

Mr. Kaine said he is confident that the budget differences can be hashed out during the ongoing negotiations, which have centered almost entirely on transportation improvements.

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