Two bills target online predators
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
With the number of teens using the Internet growing steadily, some state officials are calling for measures to better ensure these minors' protection from sexual predators who make contact with them via computer.
State Attorney General Mark Bennett would like to see the Legislature pass a bill that would put those guilty of felony electronic enticement behind bars for at least a year, with no chance of the conviction being wiped from their records.
Under current law, men caught meeting with undercover officers who had posed as teenage girls on the Internet have received "woefully inadequate sentences," Bennett said.
In recent cases in Honolulu, "every single person got probation, some with small amounts of jail time," he said. "Many got slaps on the wrist."
National statistics show that about 85 percent of children 12 to 17 years old use the Internet, and one in five reports being approached by an online predator, said Adriana Ramelli, director of the Sex Abuse Treatment Center.
"I think technology has just unfortunately provided a way for molesters and pedophiles to form relationships with children in a way they have never had access to before," said Ramelli. "There's going to be even greater harm going on now."
She believes that predators who are caught need to receive punishment and treatment.
"There's the potential that it's going to lead to a very serious sex crime and a very harmful act against a child," she said.
Computers just make it easier for sexual predators to make contact with their victims from the privacy of their own homes, Ramelli pointed out.
Bennett thinks these light sentences might even encourage men who are still contemplating whether to pursue minors over the Internet. "If they know if they get caught, the worst thing they're going to face is basically nothing ... or a weekend in jail or no time in jail — that's almost a positive incentive," he said.
The proposed legislation would have no impact on cases like that of a 30-year-old man indicted last week on charges that he contacted a 14-year-old boy over the Internet, fondling him at a movie theater and giving him pornographic materials.
In cases where the perpetrator actually succeeds in enticing a child, the judge recognizes the seriousness of the offense, Bennett said.
Where it might make a difference, however, is in preventing those who are still on the fence from pursuing sexual activity with a minor, since "if you do get caught, you're guaranteed going to Halawa for at least a year, and that's not something you want to be doing," he said.
"The people that we caught could just as easily be going out and doing it to a real child," Bennett said. "If they actually did it, by that time, it's too late for the child."
The governor submitted bills targeting Internet predators to both the House and the Senate. The House version has not had a hearing, but the Senate Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee passed the bill out last week and it will likely cross over to the House next month.
Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said she plans to hold a hearing on the Senate version of the bill later this session.
Both the Department of Human Services and the Honolulu Police Department support the bill.
In addition to the mandatory prison sentence, the bill would eliminate possibility of a deferred plea. It would also establish a misdemeanor offense for those who arrange a meeting with a minor for the purposes of sexual activity, regardless of whether they carry it out.
The Office of the Public Defender took issue with the new misdemeanor, pointing out in written testimony to the Senate committee: "A person could e-mail the sentiment, 'Let's get together sometime,' and arguably be guilty of agreeing to meet with the minor if the minor responded affirmatively. A defendant could have no actual intention of meeting with the person on the other end of the Internet conversation, but be guilty of this offense."
The office also took a stand against making the sentence mandatory without knowing the specific circumstances of the case.
"There is no showing that judges are not appropriately sentencing offenders in these cases," the testimony said.
Kelly Rosati, executive director of the Hawai'i Family Forum, however, submitted testimony that called sentences like probation and little or no jail time too lenient.
"This is not an acceptable standard of protection of Hawai'i's children," she wrote.
Reach Treena Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.