The brutality of child rape and its devastating short- and long-term impact on its innocent victims understandably motivate some to advocate the death penalty for those who repeatedly and viciously prey on young people.
One such advocate is state Rep. John Becker, a Republican from Clermont County in southwest Ohio. Becker late this summer introduced House Bill 244, which would allow the death penalty in Ohio for repeat sexual offenders convicted of aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery and aggravated unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.
Becker’s action to bring the issue of appropriate punishment for such disgusting crimes to the halls of the General Assembly deserves commendation. Many, if not most, in Ohio would sympathize with his reasoning that violent child-sex offenders deserve execution.
Even President Barack Obama concurs: “I think the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime.”
BILL FAILS CONSTITUTIONAL TEST
Becker’s concerns certainly warrant deeper exploration, but his bill in its current form sadly does not merit adoption. It crosses clearly defined constitutional lines set by the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, Becker and others should work with child advocates and others to craft a more enforceable measure that would still send a strong message to would-be child rapists.
Unfortunately, as it reads now, HB 244 faces almost insurmountable hurdles.
The high court, in its landmark Kennedy vs. Louisiana ruling in 2008, said that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who rapes a child, and that capital punishment should be reserved for murderers and those who commit crimes against the state.
“There is a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individual persons, even including child rape, on the other,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the decision.
In his rebuttal, Becker cites other states — South Carolina, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas — that have adopted death penalty statutes for child rapists. But since 2008, these laws have neither been applied nor tested, and most legal analysts contend the laws, if ever used, would be struck down quickly.
Others argue that such a law would lessen reporting of child rape. Family members may be less inclined to report a predator if they knew that their father, brother or uncle could be executed for his crime.
Already, child-sexual abuse cases are grossly understated and underreported. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports about 100,000 substantiated cases of child sexual molestation yearly. But it estimates only about 20 percent of all cases are even reported.
Such data reinforces Becker’s concerns on the need to act aggressively to ensure the harshest punishment possible for the most monstrous repeat child sex offenders.
Of course, he could proceed with his bill. After all, the landmark 2008 ruling was made with the narrowest of margins, 5-4. HB 244 could set the stage for a renewed constitutional test.
Realistically, however, precious legislative time might be better spent reinventing the bill.
We would urge Becker to streamline HB 244 after meeting with children services advocates, rape crisis counselors, psychologists, prosecutors and others. The result could be a mean bill that wields strong punishment — longer prison terms, no chances of parole — and greater deterrence value than the status quo.
The deep and painful physical and psychological scars from child rape that tens of thousands of Ohioans carry with them for a lifetime demand no less than aggressive pursuit of those goals.