BOSTON — Convicted child rapists who commit new crimes could be sentenced to life without parole under a proposal by Gov. Charlie Baker to toughen sex offender laws.
Baker's proposal, which went before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would increase the penalty for rape of a child with force by someone who has already been convicted of sexual offenses to life without parole. It establishes new charges for the rape of multiple children with force, which would carry a mandatory life sentence.
It also would require a hearing by a new, five-member "sexual dangerousness review board" of psychologists to resolve disputes over the release of a sex offender held under the state's civil commitment law. The opinions of two "qualified experts" are currently all that's required to certify a sex offender as non-dangerous and eligible for release from custody.
"Serial child predators should be incarcerated with no possibility of release," Andrew Peck, Baker's undersecretary for criminal justice at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, told the committee on Tuesday. "This legislation will ensure that an offender who has raped two of more children ... will not be released back into the community."
Baker's proposal is backed by many police chiefs and other law enforcement officials who argued that serial child rapists like Wayne Chapman are likely to reoffend.
"They do not just commit their crime once and stop," Marblehead police Chief Robert Picariello told the panel. "They're serial offenders who perpetrate their crime again and again."
But Michael Ryan, an attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services who has represented defendants accused of sex crimes, told the panel that convicted sex offenders have one of the lowest rates of recidivism.
He said the state's process for considering whether to release convicted sex offenders from prison or civil commitments doesn't need fixing.
"This system is not broken," he said. "We must maintain our faith in the institutions that we now have."
Baker, a Republican, filed similar legislation last year amid news of Chapman's pending release, but lawmakers didn't take it up before the end of the session. Baker refiled the legislation in May, urging lawmakers to approve the changes to state law.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, a Shrewsbury Republican, said the Baker administration filed the bill in response to "inadequacies" in the system revealed by the case of Chapman, a convicted child rapist from MCI Shirley after more than 40 years behind bars.
"We really need to update our laws when it comes to serial child rapists," she said. "We believe there should be better hearing before someone is released, and frankly we feel there should be a lifetime sentence associated with that level of criminal activity."
Chapman was convicted of raping two boys in Lawrence in the 1970s and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was later held under the state's civil commitment law, which allows for the indefinite jailing of sex offenders who are deemed a danger to the community.
A 2009 Supreme Judicial Court ruling bars the state from keeping sex offenders in prison if at least two "qualified examiners" determine they’re no longer a threat.
In Chapman’s case, two qualified examiners, Drs. Gregg Belle and Katrin Rouse Weir, said he was too old and sick to reoffend. Their opinions paved the way for his release despite opposition from a five-member board that that had reviewed his request for release.
Chapman is currently being treated for medical ailments at an undisclosed facility in Boston.
The high court's 2009 decision involved George Johnstone, a Fall River man who had pleaded guilty 17 years earlier to indecent assault and battery on a child. Johnstone served a 10-year sentence but was then held under a law allowing the state to keep custody of sex offenders deemed likely to reoffend.
At least 117 sex offenders have been released under the Johnstone ruling, according to a recent review of state data. In most if not all cases, the Department of Correction and a five-member Community Access Board that reviews cases of sex offenders who are civilly committed disagreed with the findings of one or more examiners, according to state reports.
"Psychologists should not decide when a sexual predator is safe to be returned to our community," Carol Mici, commissioner of the state Department of Correction, told lawmakers on Tuesday, urging them to advance the legislation. "That decision should be made by a jury comprised of members of the public, and it should be based on all of the evidence."
Baker's proposal was one of several sex offender-related bills heard by the Judiciary Committee, many of which deal with child rape.
The panel is considering a proposal by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, that would do away with the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases involving victims under the age of 18.
A similar proposal, filed by Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, on behalf of Bassam Haddad, a North Andover resident and clergy abuse victim, would also lift the statute of limitations in child sexual assault cases.
The panel is also weighing a bill filed by Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, that would set a new classification of "sexually violent predator" for certain child rape cases.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.