Lawmakers in Richmond are back at work this week, looking at new ways to fight child sex crimes. The Virginia State Crime Commission is looking at which evidence should be allowed to help stop child predators.
In some cases, a jury might not learn of a person's criminal history until after a verdict comes down. But lawmakers say, in child molestation cases, a sex offender's past should be on full display to help get a conviction.
Prosecuting child sex crimes is a tough subject – but it's one lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are eager to address.
- Not really! All you have to do is follow the news! It's easy to get a conviction on a sex crime, guilty or not, all it takes is an allegation!
"You want to make sure that you get it right," said 58th District Delegate Rob Bell (R).
Bell and Democratic Senator Mark Herring sponsored bills earlier this year to address a common concern. They want to be able to use a person's past sex offense as evidence in child sex abuse cases.
"Right now, if you have a prior similar offense with a different victim, you might very well not be able to bring that into the case, even though the average citizen would say that's very probative evidence that he did it this time. We're trying to find a way to get that evidence before a jury," said Bell.
The idea was put on hold due to concerns during the 2013 General Assembly session, and sent to the State Crime Commission for further study.
Some worry using a person's criminal history as evidence in child molestation cases would lead juries to decide guilt based on character, rather than the facts of a case. But Herring says, in a scenario where it's a victim's word against the accused, allowing juries to understand what happened in the past could help keep kids safe.
"Sometimes there's not a lot of evidence other than the testimony of the child victim. And this would help bring in some additional evidence to give prosecutors the tools they need to get convictions," said Herring.
"In other words, the jury hears what it should hear, but you also of course don't want innocent people to be convicted. And that's what we're trying to come up with here today," said Bell.
The State Crime Commission is also in the process of evaluating whether victims of child prostitution and human trafficking should be given some level of amnesty for their crimes. The commission will submit its final proposals to the General Assembly later this year.