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Committee OKs omnibus crime bill

Posted: April 11, 2013 - 10:20pm  |  Updated: April 12, 2013 - 12:07am

Members of the House Finance Committee had some harsh words for Senate Bill 22, Gov. Sean Parnell’s omnibus crime bill to strengthen criminal penalties for convicted sex offenders, but the bill ultimately cleared its final committee of referral Thursday afternoon with a strong recommendation from its co-chairman.

S.B. 22 expands the definition of some sex crimes, increases criminal penalties for certain offenses, and gives judges authority to order suspects in domestic violence and stalking cases to wear a monitoring device, among other provisions.

But one provision for mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse has attracted controversy throughout the legislative process, and it was that part of the bill that consumed much of the committee’s time Thursday.

S.B. 22 would require medical professionals, school staff, law enforcement officials, counselors, child care providers and others to report suspected child abuse.

One group of mandatory reporters, athletic coaches, were defined in the bill as including paid leaders or assistants of school or municipal sports teams.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, objected to that definition.

“Right now, the bill says that if you’re a paid coach — so you could be paid $25, a token amount for running a soccer team — you’re liable as a mandatory reporter for child abuse or neglect that you might know about,” Gara said.

Gara was joined by Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, in offering an amendment to group coaches in with school staff and remove the definition he said could expose volunteers being paid a nominal amount for helping out with a sports team to criminal charges.

The committee’s co-chairman, Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze, embraced the amendment. He agreed that the mandatory reporting provision in the bill went too far.

“There’s a lot of good things in this bill that I’m really excited about,” said Stoltze, who praised Gara — his frequent adversary on many policy issues — for offering the amendment. “But this sure appears like a reach.”

Naomi Harris from the Alaska Office of Children’s Services, testifying on the bill, said people reporting suspected child abuse do not need to be “experts” at identifying signs that a child may be experiencing abuse.

“Mandatory reporters are not expected to be experts on child abuse,” said Harris. “Coaches and school staff and after-school staff, they’re in a very unique position of relationships to these children, and close relationships, and they often notice things, or children will disclose things to them. And so the requirement is that if these people become aware of incidents of child abuse or neglect, that they are to alert the experts, which is the OCS.”

But Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, and Muñoz said they worried that placing the mandatory reporting requirement on people who are effectively volunteers could have a chilling effect on parents’ willingness to get involved with student athletics.

“I’m worried that … this would be a deterrent to participation,” said Muñoz. “Already I’ve heard from parents that are concerned with this provision, and I think it’s really important that we include verification in the school employees section, that certainly coaches associated with school programs, public and private, be included. But we don’t want to have the unintended consequences of affecting participation on all of our local programs that need the volunteers.”

While the amendment received unanimous support from the committee, the underlying bill did not.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, said she feels the bill is an “overreach” and that she has not been convinced it is needed to combat sex crimes.

“I guess there’s just things in here that I feel are going way beyond what I feel that we necessarily have to do, at a cost that nobody seems to know,” Wilson said. “And I just don’t think we’ve had time to flesh those things out. But I’m not going to stop the bill from going through.”

Speaking after Wilson, Gara said he will vote for the bill, but he echoed some of the North Pole representative’s arguments.

“We’re all on board on preventing domestic violence. We’re all on board on preventing sexual abuse. Every single one of us has talked about that. But it seems like there’s a new bill every year just to say that, and but then you have to tweak the law a little bit so that you have a bill,” Gara said. “I mean, sexual trafficking is already illegal. Human trafficking is already illegal. And so now we have another 20-page bill, and you know, it’s more positive than negative to me, so I’m going to end up voting for it. But I just don’t think we need a new bill every year to say we oppose sexual abuse.”

Stoltze concluded by noting that most of the committee members do support most of the bill and that he recommends that it pass.

“I wanted to have this bill depart this committee … accentuating the positive parts of this,” said Stoltze. “We did certainly pick at a scab at one provision on it. But overall, this did not have the blemishes that some who were observing it might take away from the emphasis of discussion on that one point.”

The next stop for S.B. 22 is the House floor. The Senate, which has already passed the bill, will need to concur with any changes before it can advance to Parnell’s desk for signature.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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