Congress has passed a bill that some are calling the most extensive piece of child safety legislation in the last decade. Under the measure, convicted child molesters would be listed on a national internet database and would face a felony charge for failing to update their whereabouts. Also, anyone who tries to confuse or mislead minors on the web by providing phony or deceiving information or images in an attempt to entice them to a potentially harmful online destination could be subject to a fine and up to 20 years in prison.
“Sex offenders have run rampant in this country, and now Congress and the people are ready to respond with legislation that will curtail the ability of sex offenders to operate freely,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sponsored the legislation with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
The bill, called the Children’s Safety and Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2006, was designed to help police find more than 100,000 sex offenders by creating the first national online listing available to the public and searchable by ZIP code. It also calls for harsh federal punishment for sexually assaulting children, including the possibility of the death penalty when a victim is murdered.
The Senate approved the measure by a voice vote on July 20. The House passed it on July 26, and President Bush signed the bill into law July 27.
Supporters say the measure is imperative to ensuring youth safety both on and off the internet.
“We track library books better than we track sex offenders. This evens the score,” said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., a sponsor in the House.
But there’s a catch. For a purveyor of online material that is harmful to minors, or the owner of particular web site, to be jailed, the law states the content has to have the “intent to deceive.”
In an interview with internet news agency CNET, David Greene, staff counsel for the nonprofit First Amendment Project, said such a provision could pass constitutional muster if used against web sites that trick minors into viewing off-color sexual material.
But such assertions likely won’t be easy, cautioned UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh when contacted by the news agency.
“It becomes difficult to prove and difficult to predict what a jury will decide, because it’s a question of what your purpose was” in creating the web site, Volokh told the news organization.
Debate was tearful from the start as the Senate considered the bill named for Adam Walsh, the murdered son of “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh. He watched from the gallery as senators thanked him for years of lobbying for the bill. July 27 was the 25th anniversary of the abduction of Adam, 6, and his subsequent murder.
“This has to be bittersweet for him,” said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., choking up as he made a rare reference to his infant daughter Amy, killed in a 1972 car crash.
Child advocates have called the bill the most sweeping sex-offender legislation to target pedophiles in years. It would:
- Establish a comprehensive federal DNA database of material collected from convicted molesters and develop procedures for the routine DNA collection and comparison to the database when someone has been convicted of such an offense.
- Provide federal funding for states to track pedophiles using global positioning devices.
- Allow victims of child abuse to sue their molesters.
- Impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years for raping a child.
- Impose a mandatory 10-year penalty for sex trafficking offenses involving children and for coercing child prostitution.
- Increase minimum sentences for molesters who travel between states.
In signing the bill, known as H.R. 4472, President Bush said it will provide “law-enforcement officials with the tools they need to track those who prey upon children.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch
Sen. Byron Dorgan