WASHINGTON -- Child sex offenders would be subject to stringent monitoring requirements and face new mandatory penalties under a House-passed bill that was expanded to include protections for gays and lesbians under federal hate crime law.
The House voted 371-to-52 yesterday in favor of the Children's Safety Act, which, among its many provisions, would create a national website for child sex offenders and stipulate that sex felons face up to 20 years in prison for failing to comply with registration requirements.
Unexpectedly, the House voted 223-to-199 in favor of an amendment by Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, that would expand the current hate crime law to include some crimes involving sexual orientation, gender, and disability. Under current law, the federal government assists local and state authorities prosecuting limited types of crimes based on the victim's race, religion, or ethnic background.
The House has been the chief obstacle in numerous previous attempts to expand hate crimes law, and Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, said it was an ''incredibly historic vote" that could give momentum to similar action in the Senate.
The sex offender bill, which also would require felony offenders to register for life and authorize the death penalty for sex crimes resulting in the killing of a child, responds to what the House Judiciary Committee chairman, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, said was a ''national crisis" in child sex offenses. He said that of some 550,000 convicted sex offenders in the nation, the whereabouts of 100,000 are unknown.
Representative Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, said, ''We track library books better than we do sexual predators."
Sensenbrenner said that the legislation would get favorable treatment in the Senate and that he expected it to be signed into law by the end of the year.
The White House, in a statement, expressed support, saying that even though sex crimes against children have declined significantly in recent years, more needs to be done. It noted that the legislation codified the online National Sex Offender Public Registry that the Justice Department launched earlier this year.
The legislation would bring together parts of numerous proposals to protect children from sex offenders. Sections of the bill are named after victims in cases that gained national prominence, including Dru Sjodin, a North Dakota college student, and 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Florida.
Among the criticisms of the bill were that it could further ostracize people who have paid for their crimes and are trying to live normal lives. Out-of-jail offenders facing harassment or unable to get jobs ''may just go underground and not bother to register again," said Representative Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat.
Representative Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, offered an amendment to eliminate several mandatory minimum sentences, including one that would create a minimum penalty of five years and a maximum of 20 years for offenders who fail to comply with registration requirements. It was defeated, 316-to-106.
The mandatory minimums are ''definitely going to ensnare people who are in good faith attempting to comply with the registration requirements, which are somewhat vague and complex," said Kyle O'Dowd, legislative affairs director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Among the many amendments accepted was one by Sensenbrenner that would help local law officials track down the estimated 15,000 sex offenders who may have relocated as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Another, by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, provides for the civil confinement of violent sex offenders deemed by a panel of experts as too dangerous to return to society.