By Jon Schroeder
The Cove Herald
Among many new traffic and criminal laws which went into effect Saturday, three are designed to protect children.
The first, known as Jessica’s law, cracks down on sexual predators. A new 25-year minimum sentence for sexually violent offenses against children 14 or younger has been imposed, and a second conviction makes it a capitol offense. The statute of limitations on sexually violent crimes has been extended to the victims’ 38th birthday. In addition, the law mandates global positioning system monitoring sexually violent predators and makes harboring a sex offender in violation of registration punishable by up to a third degree felony.
The law was named for Jessica Lunsford, a nine-year-old Florida girl who was raped and murdered by a repeat offender in 2005.
Lori Hix, an investigator with the Copperas Cove Police Department, said the law might be a very good thing — but it could be a “double-edged sword.”
The harsher penalties it mandates will mean more jail time for offenders, but they also could cause more plea bargains, Hix said.
“Hopefully it will make people think twice,” she said. “I think we’re at a point now where we need to put our foot down and say ‘enough.’”
Another law, this one coming out of the Senate, upgrades the penalty for sexually explicit online communication with a minor 14 to 16 years old to a third degree felony. If that sexually explicit communication becomes sexual solicitation, it becomes a second degree felony. With the Internet nearly doubling in size every month, and the explosion of popular Web sites such as MySpace, Yahoo 360, Xanga and blog sites, it has become increasingly easier for Internet predators to locate children.
I-Safe, an Internet safety program the Copperas Cove Independent School District is planning to implement in school, has conducted studies that show students feel freer on the Internet because of the anonymity — the same reason sexual predators and other criminals feel free to find victims.
According to an I-Safe study of more than 100,000 children, 31 percent of students believe that it is all right to chat with strangers, and 50 percent trust their new online friends, with 11 percent stating that they had met an online friend face-to-face.
Students who participated in the study also said they prefer being alone while surfing the Internet. While surfing the net, 31 percent of children admitted to visiting inappropriate Web sites.
More than 71,000 Web sites are on the Internet and 25 percent of those are pornographic.
House Bill 3190 also serves to protect children from danger. The law requires school districts to train teachers and students to evacuate school buses at least twice yearly. It also prohibits people with driving-related convictions from operating a school bus within 10 years of the offence. “Enforcement and awareness go hand in hand,” said Lt. Danny Austin, spokesman for the Copperas Cove Police Department. Since some of the new laws affect the police department directly, officers are being trained on how to enforce them.
Austin said that beyond any training the police department does, it’s important to see how the parts fit together — many of the changes, particularly the new laws designed to protect children, affect sentencing more than enforcement.
One new law which “gives (the police department) some teeth” to serve the public is Lillian’s law, which could increase penalties for dog owners whose dogs injure people unprovoked, Austin said. Lillian’s law is named for Lillian Stiles, who was killed in her own yard near Thorndale in 2005 by six pit bull/Rottweiler mixed-breed dogs.
The law, requiring that dog owners secure their dogs on their property, also went into effect Saturday. The law will make dog owners criminally responsible for attacks made off their property due to negligence. Some dog professionals are exempted.
Several other notable bills also took effect Sept. 1, including Katie’s law, which would require drivers 85 years and above to pass vision tests to renew their licenses every two years. Drivers 79 years old and above also may not renew their driver license electronically.
In addition, the Department of Public Safety must develop an alert system for senior citizens with a role similar to that of the Amber Alert Program for abducted children.
A law dubbed the “Castle Doctrine” got a boost as well — in defending their homes, people can now use deadly force without attempting to retreat from an attacker.
Another law intended to protect children, requiring a national criminal history background check for all certified public school employees, is slated to go into effect June 15. That law prevents school districts from employing felons and individuals convicted of sexual offenses against children, primary students and secondary students.
Contact Jon Schroeder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 547-0428