Candidate: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Proposal: 'One-Strike' Laws for Online Sex Predators

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mitt Romney worries that the nation's children are swimming in filthy water, a "cesspool of violence, sex and drugs and indolence and perversions." To clean things up, the Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor has proposed increased punishment for those who prey on children online -- stringent mandatory prison sentences, followed by lifetime tracking by Global Positioning System for first-time offenders who "use the Internet to sexually assault children." He calls it "One Strike, You're Ours."

"It's time to clean up the Internet, make sure that those people who are using the Internet to become predators against children, that those people are gone forever," Romney said late last month while campaigning in Iowa. "I want to put them in jail for a long time and make sure we have GPS on them for the rest of their lives. One strike and they're ours. I want to know where they are forever."

"One-strike" laws for sex crimes against children are not new. Many states have provisions mandating 25-years-to-life sentences for certain categories of sex offenders, such as those convicted of assaulting more than one child. The "Jessica's Law" introduced in Florida in 2005 and passed in California last year expands the definition of crimes that get mandatory life sentences, including burglaries and kidnapping that lead to sexual assaults on children.

But Romney is taking the approach a big step further to apply it to sexual predation that begins on the Internet and to make it a matter of federal law. In that, he is following the lead of conservative commentators, notably CNN's Glenn Beck, who has been beating the drum for tougher one-strike sentences. "When it comes to molesting our children, at least to me, one strike and you are out. You lay a hand on my kid or anybody else's kid once, you better make some deal on some land in the mountains or, better yet, Mexico . . . because you ain't welcome here," Beck said last month, a few days before Romney announced his proposal.

Romney says he was motivated to pitch the proposal after being appalled by reports that nearly 30,000 convicted sexual predators were found using the social networking site But the plan also serves Romney's attempt to sell himself to socially conservative Republican voters who might be put off by his Mormon faith or wary of his past moderate stances on abortion and other issues.

Civil liberties advocates have no end of concerns about the proposal. They question Romney's focus on the means of predation, saying sexual abuse should be punished whether or not it involves the Internet. They argue that the best way to protect children online is to educate them to watch out for predators. They say mandatory sentences do not necessarily deter offenders who do not believe they are going to get caught. Also, they say such sentences lump together widely disparate offenses and remove the discretion of judges, as occurred recently when a Georgia teenager was sentenced to 10 years in prison after engaging in consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl.

Bill Walsh, a retired Dallas police lieutenant and co-founder of the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center, noted that much would depend on the details of Romney's proposal, which does not specify what type of sexual assault convictions would receive the mandatory sentence or how lengthy sentences would be.

"We'd have to fully explore it. We have serious crimes today where you injure or kill a child and we don't apply" mandatory sentences, Walsh said. "We'd have to have look at it carefully."

-- Alec MacGillis

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