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R.I. lawmakers consider tougher penalties for sex offenders

PROVIDENCE, R.I. --People convicted of raping children would be monitored with global positioning software for the rest of their lives under a bill passed Thursday by the House of Representatives.

The House voted 64-2 to approve "Jessica's Law," which sets a minimum 25-year prison sentence for people convicted of first-degree child molestation and requires the state to track them upon their release from prison.

Rep. Peter Palumbo, D-Cranston, said he sponsored the legislation because sex offender laws already on the books have not been effective. Ten years ago, Palumbo sponsored the state's Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement agencies to notify the public when the most dangerous sex offenders are released from prison.

"You can't rehabilitate a child molester, so they need to be monitored from the time they get out of prison for the rest of their life," he told House members before they voted Thursday.

Florida passed the first "Jessica's Law" last year after a paroled sex offender kidnapped 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford from her home, raped her and buried her alive. About two dozen states have passed similar legislation since then.

Some states require sex offenders to spend at least 25 years behind bars. Palumbo's original bill did that, but it was changed in committee to give judges more discretion.

The bill passed by the House on Thursday establishes a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. But judges can suspend part of that sentence, and offenders may apply for parole.

The maximum penalty in Rhode Island for any crime -- including murder -- is life in prison. But some people sentenced to life are eligible for parole after 20 years, according to the Department of Corrections.

Once sex offenders are released from prison, Jessica's Law would require them to take annual polygraph tests, undergo sex offender treatment and submit to lifetime electronic monitoring.

Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, voted against the bill. Most children are molested by relatives or family friends, and the legislation doesn't protect them against that, she said.

"I certainly don't want to defend these people," she said. But, she continued, money spent on GPS monitoring might be better spent educating parents and teachers about how to protect children.

The Senate is expected to vote on similar legislation next week, spokesman Greg Pare said. The two chambers must pass the same bill before it becomes law.

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