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December 01, 2009

With the 2010 Legislative session right around the corner, we’ve been busy finalizing our AGO request legislation. As you know, last year the state’s budget situation made it very difficult to move bills, so we were pleased that many of our consumer protection, community safety, and open government priorities were approved by the Legislature.

We did have some disappointments, however, and we vowed to return this session to address unfinished business on behalf of victims of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, as well as to protect the growing number of vulnerable senior citizens in our state.

Vulnerable Adults 

This bill will increase protections for vulnerable adults as defined under state law, including the elderly and disabled. Elder abuse is such a growing problem in this country that most families likely will be affected at some point. In this time of economic uncertainty, seniors are more vulnerable than ever to abuse and neglect, and especially to attempts to exploit them financially. Reports of abuse to Adult Protective Services in Washington have been growing steadily.

In 2007 and 2008, we convened a Vulnerable Adult Summit and working group which brought together experts and stakeholders from across Washington to explore ways to better protect the elderly and disabled adults from abuse, neglect, criminal mistreatment and financial exploitation.

Based on that work, we are proposing legislation this year that improves protections for vulnerable adults and enhances punishments for crimes committed against them. The proposed legislation includes a number of measures designed to:

  • Increase penalties imposed on individuals who commit crimes against vulnerable adults;
  • Provide legal protection to financial institutions that report attempted financial exploitation, rather than waiting until after a crime has been committed, and authorizes a three-day transaction freeze under certain circumstances;
  • Require the reporting of suspicious deaths to coroners and medical examiners, when abuse or neglect is suspected.

Preventing Child Exploitation

Our second community safety bill aims to help stop the victimization of children by holding perpetrators and viewers of child sexual abuse images more accountable for their crimes.

Recording and trafficking images of child sexual abuse is a growing, multibillion-dollar global industry. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has cataloged tens of millions of these sickening images which have been intercepted by law enforcement. Also alarming are two recent studies showing that 70 to 80 percent of individuals who view images of child sexual abuse also molest children.

In 2007, I convened a Youth Internet Safety Task Force in order to leverage Washington’s unique position as a technology leader. The Task Force has developed educational, collaborative and law enforcement strategies to make the internet safer for Washington’s children and families. It also has determined that perpetrators attempt to avoid criminal liability for possession of child sexual abuse images by remotely accessing and viewing them over the internet, using peer-to-peer file sharing technology. It is no longer necessary for them to download the images onto hard drives or print them out. Each image is a permanent record of a child’s sexual abuse, and distribution victimizes that child every time the image is viewed.

Our criminal law must be updated to adapt to this shift in technology and behavior. Prosecutors must be allowed to charge multiple counts of felony child pornography possession when images are intentionally accessed and viewed, regardless of whether they are downloaded or printed.

To strengthen law enforcement efforts, my office has drafted legislation this year that will:

  • Redefine the felony crime of possession of depictions of child pornography to include deliberately accessing and viewing those images of child sexual abuse over the Internet;
  • Affirmatively reset the unit of prosecution in child pornography cases back to the nationally recognized per-image standard of one count per image possessed;
  • And, protect non-commissioned law enforcement personnel from prosecution when viewing depictions during investigations.

Domestic Violence

Our third community protection bill will strengthen penalties for serial domestic violence offenders. Although it has been 25 years since our state passed the Domestic Violence Protection Act, Washington still does not treat domestic violence with the seriousness it demands.
A major problem for law enforcement officers and prosecutors is the lack of sentence multipliers for domestic violence crimes. Sentence multipliers are designed to significantly increase sentences for repeat offenders, and they are applied to most felony offenses such as car theft and drug trafficking, but not to domestic violence crimes. Repeat offenders often start out with convictions for misdemeanor assault and battery. But under the Sentencing Reform Act, their previous misdemeanor domestic violence convictions are not factored into subsequent felony sentences. As a result, all too often, repeat domestic violence offenders do not receive adequate punishment, leaving them free to continue terrorizing their victims again and again.

To better protect victims of domestic violence, the law must be changed. The Attorney General’s Office is requesting legislation to:

  • Score prior misdemeanor domestic violence history when sentencing felony domestic violence convictions and create a new list of enumerated serious domestic violence misdemeanor offenses.
  • Multiply, or count more heavily, a certain class of prior domestic violence felony convictions by adding language to RCW 9.94A.525 (offender score calculation) that would give two points to certain domestic violence crimes, including: Felony Violation No Contact Order/Protection Order (assault), Felony Harassment Domestic Violence, Felony Stalking Domestic Violence, Burglary 1 Domestic Violence, Kidnapping 1 and 2 Domestic Violence.
  • Amend 9.94A.030 (Sentencing Reform Act definitions) to add "domestic violence," defined as a criminal offense committed between a defendant and a victim having a relationship as defined in RCW 10.99.020 or 26.50.010.
  • Make the designation of “Domestic Violence” mean something by requiring that it be pled and proven as an element of a particular offense. The benefit of pleading and proving domestic violence is significant, as history at the felony level would be given new meaning and repeat offenders would receive tougher sentences.
  • The implementation date will be August 2011, to allow county prosecutors a full year to prepare for pleading and proving domestic violence as an element of an offense, and to offset any potential financial impact during the current biennium.

Looking Ahead

Next month, I’ll give you a preview of other legislation we plan to request during the 2010 session. Meanwhile, you can track our progress on our website, or follow us on Twitter for up-to-the minute news on our bills throughout the session.

Rob McKenna
Attorney General

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