House committee rejects Jessica's Law bill

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A bill that would have brought the so-called Jessica's Law to Colorado died on a party-line vote in a state legislative committee on Feb. 13.

The bill would have imposed a mandatory sentence of at least 25 years on an offender who commits a sexual assault against a child, before the person is eligible for parole.

The four republicans on the House of Representatives State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee voted in favor of the law. But all seven democrats rejected the bill, arguing in part that Colorado already has some of the toughest sex crimes laws in the country.

Jessica's Law is named after Jessica Lunsford, a young girl who was sexually assaulted and buried alive in Florida in 2005.

Lunsford's father, Mark, provided emotional, and often tearful, testimony in support of the bill. Before her death, Mark Lunsford recalled taking his daughter to the fair and snapping a photograph of her that day.

"That was the last picture of my daughter," Lunsford said. "That was the picture that the entire world (had) seen."

Jessica Lunsford was killed by John Couey, who was a repeat sex offender. Couey was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for Jessica's death, but died of cancer in 2009.

Mark Lunsford said repeat child sex offenders "are not going to stop" targeting children and that laws like the one named after his daughter are necessary to prevent more cases like hers from happening.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, reminded committee members that Colorado is one of only six states where Jessica's Law is not in place.

"It's time for us to stop talking about the welfare of our children and do something about it," Szabo said.

But Colorado already has mandatory sentencing structures on the books for crimes of violence. And, in egregious cases like Jessica Lunsford's, prosecutors and the courts have the discretion of meting out very long sentences for sex offenders, according to testimony from Laurie Rose Kepros, the director of Sexual Offense Defense for the State Public Defender's office.

"We have the tools to drop the hammer," she said.

Kepros said that Colorado has the "harshest sex offender (sentencing structures) in the country," and that sex offenders in Colorado already go through rigorous hoops before they're able to receive an early release from their sentences.

Kepros also expressed concern that crimes that aren't as egregious as the one that led to Jessica's Law could be lumped into the same indeterminate sentencing structure. The bill's language stated that a minimum 25-year sentence would be imposed for an offender who commits a sexual assault against a child who is 14 or younger, and who is at least seven years younger than the assailant. Kepros said that could lead to a 21-year-old man who touches the buttocks of a 14-year-old girl through her clothing to receiving a life sentence.

"This takes away the type of discretion we trust with prosecutors (and judges) all the time," Kepros said.

Erin Jemison, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said after the hearing that she frequently disagrees with the Public Defender's office, but not on this issue.

"We don't like the blanket stuff like that," she said of mandatory minimum sentences. "We prefer to look at the individual."

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