It shouldn’t take a crisis to better protect children from sexual predators. It shouldn’t, but when it comes to getting the Massachusetts Legislature to heed the governor’s call to fix a longstanding flaw in state laws, it seems they are waiting for one.
When Governor Charlie Baker filed his bill in the summer of 2018 to revamp the state’s arcane law on the civil commitment of sex offenders and toughen sentencing laws on child rapists, the community was in the throes of the Wayne Chapman controversy.
Chapman, a convicted serial child rapist, was about to be released from civil commitment, where he had been confined as a sexually dangerous person. The uproar that ensued pointed to two flaws in the criminal justice system: that a man who was convicted of raping and sexually assaulting six boys would one day be set free, and that he could do so on the approval of two “qualified examiners” — independent contractors hired by the Mass. Department of Correction.
Efforts last spring by the governor and the attorney general to take on such flaws in the civil commitment system before the state Supreme Judicial Court proved fruitless when the court issued a decision noting the state had “failed to provide any evidence” that the court’s rulings, including one in a similar case back in 2009, “have compromised public safety.”
“We therefore decline to reject a statutory interpretation that has been applied in sexual dangerousness cases for approximately ten years,” Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote in the unanimous decision.
The 71-year-old Chapman, who made his last public appearance in a wheelchair, has since been released. But about 150 others deemed sexually dangerous —many of whom have completed their criminal sentences but are being held under the same civil commitment law — remain at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater.
The Chapman case was particularly egregious, not simply because of the nature of his crimes, but because while the two “qualified examiners” ruled in his favor, three psychologists on the five-member Community Access Board had concluded he remained sexually dangerous. However, only a dispute between the two qualified examiners can trigger a subsequent trial in the Superior Court on the issue.
Baker’s bill, which was refiled in the wake of the Supreme Judicial Court ruling in May, finally got a hearing last week before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee even as the House and Senate have suspended formal sessions until the start of the new year.
But the children the bill seeks to protect continue to face threats from sexual predators, especially now that Internet communications have made it ever so much easier for them to access their prey.
Baker’s bill would establish a new category of crime for those convicted of raping multiple children with force. It would carry a mandatory sentence of life without parole. So would the rape of a child with force by anyone previously convicted of a sexual offense.
The bill would also reform the civil commitment procedure so that any disagreement among the experts — including those on a revamped sexual dangerousness review board — would trigger a trial before a judge or jury at which all the evidence could be presented. In short, it would put the ultimate responsibility where it belongs: with the justice system. And due process and legal representation would also help ensure that those deserving of release have a real shot at getting it.
The leisurely pace with which the Legislature has approached this issue can surely be excused if — and only if — in the end it takes the issue and the need for a change in the law seriously. The state’s children and the victims of those already incarcerated deserve no less.