Protecting children a top priority of state

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  • Monday, March 3, 2008 1:08pm

By state Sen. Debbie Regala

Alexis Bacharach levels a serious charge against the criminal justice system in a recent column (“Justice system not protecting our kids”, 9/21).

This charge is both misguided and inaccurate.

Discussions about sex offenders are some of the most emotional conversations we can have as a community. It’s an incredibly fearful issue for parents, no question. As a state senator, I’m a public official, but I’m also a mother and grandmother. There should be no doubt that public officials are as concerned as every parent about protecting children from violent sex offenders.

Rest assured, protecting kids is among the very highest priorities of state government, and state lawmakers are doing all we can to ensure that Washington has the strongest protections in the nation. State law has changed tremendously since 1990, with our Legislature demonstrating national leadership on this issue. Among the highlights:

• In 1990, Washington was the first in the nation to enact civil commitment for sexually violent predators likely to re-offend, and was also the first state to require community notification about released sex offenders.

• 1996, we instituted ‘two strikes, you’re out’, where two convictions of a violent sex offense means life in prison.

• In 2006, we enacted mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years to life for specific predatory rape or child molestation crimes.

Sex offenders that do eventually return to the community are under formal supervision for years, and are under the watchful eye of law enforcement and their neighbors thereafter.

Community notification is an extremely important component in protecting kids from sex offenders. It helps to account for the fact that sex offenders have the lowest re-offense rate of all criminals. Simply, the sex offenders we know don’t often re-offend because everyone is watching them vigilantly. For this reason, known sex offenders actually pose less of a threat than the offenders yet to be identified.

In fact, the vast majority of sex offender convictions are first-time convictions. This doesn’t necessarily translate into the first time an offender has offended – just the first time they’ve been caught. The point is that we must become better at identifying the scenarios that lead to sex offenses being committed, before they are committed.

The “stranger-danger” type of situation Bacharach describes is scary, and can leave parents feeling helpless. But the truth is 80 to 90 percent of offenses against children involve someone close to the child or the parent.

We must all be vigilant and familiar with the tell-tale indicators of potential risk. These include potential offenders’ befriending of a parent or child, gaining trust of the family, and grooming of the potential victim to become comfortable with them and the inappropriate behavior they hope to pursue. Parents who recognize these signs can act well in advance to keep their children safe.

The Legislature as a whole is committed to sparing no expense in keeping our children safe from sex offenders. And because a big part of safety begins at home, we are also committed to providing information to families and parents about people trying to exploit their trust in order to get close to their children for immoral purposes.

Sen. Debbie Regala, D- Tacoma, has represented the 27th District since 1994. She serves as vice chairwoman of the Senate Human Services &Corrections Committee.

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