State plans harsher child sex crime penalties
For those frustrated over the recent penalties given to convicted child molesters, Attorney General Mark Bennett offers this reprieve: Look to the 2009 Legislative Session.
Though previously handed down sentences can’t be altered — some of which were penalties of less than five-years in jail if the victim was enticed or molested rather than penetrated — Bennett said what residents can count on is lawmakers taking a harder look at crimes against children and the associated penalties for such convictions.
“There are a lot of people that think sex offenders don’t receive sufficient jail time for their offenses,” Bennett said. “And I agree. There’s a lot of cases that I’ve seen where sex offenders don’t receive sentences that I believe they should have.”
Bennett made his comments in the wake of several cases that have brought a flurry of critique from residents, including the Kaua‘i case of Tom Gonsalves Sr., who faced five-years maximum in prison but was sentenced earlier this month to one year in jail for molesting a 5-year-old.
Bennett pointed to last week’s Maui case in which 38-year-old Robert J. McKnight Jr., who was convicted after a jury trial for enticing a 15-year-old over the Internet. The case was the first in the state to go to trial and the punishment is now being appealed; McKnight is out on $20,000 bail.
The 15-year-old victim in the case was actually an undercover agent, Bennett said. As part of his sentence, McKnight was ordered to undergo sex offender treatment and to register as a sex offender; he was also sentenced to five years’ probation and a one-year jail term, the mandatory minimum for the crime.
Cases such as the Gonsalves and Maui case as well as a high-profile case in Honolulu last week, that of Marc Fossorier, a 43-year-old University of Hawai‘i professor, have shed light on the disparity between the ranges of punishment convicted sex offenders can face; a problem which needs to be addressed, Bennett said.
Fossorier pleaded guilty last week to electronic enticement of a child, a crime that doesn’t include the actual physical touching of a victim, but that comes with an automatic mandatory one-year jail sentence with the possibility of up to 10 years imprisonment.
That mandatory minimum is the result of legislation passed in 2006, as part of the crime of Electronic Enticement of a Child statute.
But even with recent attempts by the Legislature and prosecutors to make sex offender penalties more stringent in Hawai‘i, there remains the possibility for convicted sexual predators to remain on the streets, a problem which, Bennett said, will have to be addressed in the appeals process, and, later, in legislative session.Without being able to offer specifics on the bill he plans to propose to legislators, Bennett was able to say it would address penalty stringency and augment the monitoring of offenders.
“We believe this is a serious problem and we are going to be, this year, proposing a bill dealing with not only sex offenders but the sex offender registry itself,” he said.
Though the proposed 2009 sex offender bill could have mandatory penalties similar to Jessica’s Law, Bennett reiterated that to what extent those similarities would be remains unclear.
First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jennifer Winn, whose focus includes sex crimes on-island, said some versions of Jessica’s Law include a mandatory life imprisonment sentence without the chance of parole if the victim was penetrated, but said it would be difficult to say whether a Jessica’s Law in Hawai‘i would help her prosecute cases.
While several states have mandatory penalties for those who commit sexual crimes against children under Florida’s Jessica’s Law, named after a 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2005, Bennett said Hawai‘i already has stiff mandatory incarceration requirements for “the most serious offenders.” He added, however, that they are not associated specifically with crimes against children.
Versions of Jessica’s Law on the Mainland include a mandatory 25-year prison sentence and a lifetime of electronic GPS monitoring for those who commit the crime against a child 12 years or younger.
According to the Hawai‘i sex offender registry, there are currently 1,769 registered individuals who are listed as having committed sexual offenses against minors; 698 of those are considered non-compliant, or without known addresses.
• Amanda C. Gregg, assistant editor/staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or firstname.lastname@example.org.