Efforts to reform the 35-year-old laws that define the way New York's legal system deals with sex offenders remain stalled in the State Legislature. Even though changes are long past due, the Assembly, which appears to be worried about offending defense attorneys, has repeatedly killed reform efforts.
Legislation that reflects the enormous societal changes since the mid-1960s -- from the way sex-crime victims are perceived to the nature of sex crime itself -- has been dying in committee. Twice, the bill has passed the Senate only to perish in the lower house.
This year, Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, plans to introduce his Sexual Assault Reform Act yet again. He's "very optimistic" that the third time will prove the charm. For the sake of the vulnerable, we hope he's right.
This act adds protection for victims of sexual crimes and increases punishment for convicted offenders. It deals with date-rape drugs, something not envisioned in the 1965 legislation. It allows children as young as 9 to testify in sexual assault trials if a judge thinks they can and should. It also revises registration requirements for convicted sex offenders and includes them in a state DNA identification index. Child pornography gets harsher treatment.
Who could be against such legislation? Defense attorneys, that's who.
There are several provisions in the bill that would make trials much more difficult for defense attorneys, an influential group in Albany and especially in the Assembly. Refusal to provide a DNA sample would become a felony, for instance. AIDS testing is bolstered. Prosecutors would gain the right to appeal a judge's decision to grant bail, or judges' sentences they deem too lenient -- something already allowed in federal law but not in state courts.
Even more troubling to some attorneys is an amendment to evidence laws that would allow prosecutors to cite records of prior sex offenses in order to show a defendant's "propensity to commit" such crimes or to bolster the credibility of a victim. A judge can bar such evidence if its probative value "is substantially outweighed by the danger of undue prejudice to the defendant," but this reform widens the opportunity to judge sex offenders on patterns instead of isolated crimes.
Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark notes that the admissibility of prior records now is a discretionary call for judges, usually raised in pretrial hearings. Reform would reverse the priorities in sexual assault cases, calling on judges to rule such evidence specifically out instead of ruling it in. That, Clark contends, will "open up" trials for prosecutors.
It's time for Albany -- and especially the Assembly -- to move on these reforms.