North Carolina’s Version of “Jessica’s Law” Would Not Have Protected Jessica Lunsford
The General Assembly and the Governor have gleefully trumpeted the passage of “Jessica’s Law” (HB 933) in the final weeks of the legislative session. What they aren’t talking about – and don’t want anyone to know – is that what North Carolina now calls Jessica’s Law is a far cry from the original Florida law passed in memorial to nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Under this partial enactment of “Jessica’s Law,” an adult who takes advantage of a young child’s innocence to grope, fondle, and inappropriately touch them still gets a mere slap on the wrist.
In 2005, John Couey raped and murdered nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida. Fourteen years earlier, Couey had been charged with fondling a five-year-old child and was ultimately required to register as a convicted sex offender.1 One of the biggest arguments driving Jessica’s Law in Florida was that, had the legislation been in place in 1991, John Couey would have been in prison and unable to harm Jessica in 2005. Under North Carolina’s version of “Jessica’s Law,” however, Jessica Lunsford would not have been safe from harm.
When HB 933 goes into effect in December, it will still have an impact. Any adult who is convicted of raping (or otherwise sexually violating) a child will receive a minimum of 25 years in prison instead of 16 years, and will be monitored by satellite for life if he is released from prison. (This law will have no impact on a child rapist convicted of a second offense – they already receive life in prison.)
But an adult who molests a child – even a very young child – can walk away with no prison time. It’s up to a judge to decide whether to impose a prison sentence or some form of more restrictive probation. This punishment can be, for example, probation with satellite or electronic monitoring, intensive probation – probation with more frequent visits by a probation officer – or a short (six months or less) stay in prison followed by probation.
If a judge does decide to impose a prison sentence, the most he can give a first-time child molester is 2 years. And in order to impose a punishment that “harsh,” the prosecutor has to charge the molester with an aggravating factor and the judge has to take the extra step of finding for those aggravating factors.
To make matters even worse, some of the criminals who are convicted of “indecent liberties with children” – which encompasses child molestation in North Carolina – were originally charged with child rape. They have pled down to indecent liberties, and in the process replaced a conviction for a Class B1 felony and a minimum 25-year prison sentence under the new law with a Class F felony and no mandatory prison time.
And an indecent liberties conviction is no rare or unusual event. Roughly two-thirds of the more than 13,000 sex offenders on North Carolina’s sex offender registry have been convicted of taking indecent liberties with children. While not all of those offenses are child molestation, a fair number of them involve are.
A true Jessica’s Law would have given child molesters the same sentence as child rapists: minimum 25 years in prison followed by lifetime satellite monitoring or life in prison. In the first House committee HB 933 passed through, the provision for child molesters was stripped out. Why? Legislators said it was too expensive, and some thought it was too harsh. So instead of looking for a solution that would still punish child molesters adequately, the General Assembly ignored them. Under HB 933, a child molester will still be able to walk away without serving a day in prison.
The Governor signed this law with great fanfare as legislators patted themselves on the back for a job well done making our state safer from child predators. Actually, HB 933 will not keep our children safe, it still allows heinous crimes against our state’s children to go virtually unpunished and it continues to send the message to sex offenders that North Carolina does not really take their crimes seriously. Our parents and children deserve to have their tormentors taken off the streets. And we as a society owe it to our most vulnerable citizens to put these criminals behind bars. This celebrated version of “Jessica’s Law” simply does not measure up.