Proposed changes focus on sex assault victims, not perpetrators

'ENOUGH': Hundreds of people stood along roadsides in dozens of locations at 5:05 p.m. April 24 to say "Enough" to the sexual assaults that have victimized many of the island's underage children and adults. The walkout was organized by the Guam Family Justice Center Alliance, whose members find healing in helping others who have been victims of sexual abuse. Post file photo

Carina Fejerang, president of the Guam Family Justice Center Alliance, shared one of the most important comments at a hearing Monday on a set of bills dealing with sex assault involving minor victims and older, teen perpetrators.

Fejerang gently cautioned senators who received public input on the proposed laws that further discussions should be held to ensure any changes in the law "are for the benefit of the victims."

We hope a majority of our senators will listen.

The proposal would give the prosecutors the discretion to charge a minor defendant with misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct instead of harsher charges with tougher penalties. The proponents seem to want to spare a convicted teen from a lifetime of being branded as a sex offender. Without a change in law, predatory sex crimes require a defendant to be listed on the sex offender registry.

The bills – though introduced with input from the Guam attorney general's office, which wants more discretionary leeway on handling cases involving a teen suspect and a teen victim – cannot possibly pass the way they are worded.

The measures aren't exactly an easy read. Good legislation should be crystal clear and should remove the potential for confusion or misinterpretation.

The bill's author, Speaker Tina Muña Barnes, said one of the bills would "only cover victims who are 14 (or) 15 years old, and their consensual sex with 16- ... 17- (or) 18-year-olds."

If these bills become law, a prosecutor would be able to charge a suspect with third-degree criminal sexual conduct as a misdemeanor.

Ron McNinch, an associate professor at the University of Guam, who was one of the first to raise concerns about a now-convicted former UOG professor who sexually assaulted some of his students, is among the most vocal of our concerned citizens about the message this legislation could send.

While he recognized the "good intentions" of the bill toward more prosecutorial discretion, McNinch said, "I believe that a 14-year-old cannot give consent. I don't think a 15-year-old can give consent."

We agree. We don't think we want to be a community that signals – even unintentionally – to an 18-year-old or a 17-year-old that it's OK to prey on 15- or 14-year-olds. This should never be OK.

Something about this set of proposed changes in law doesn't sound right. We urge senators to give this set of proposals a lot of thought and care.

Victims of sex assault should be at the front and center of local senators' lawmaking goals and actions.

"There are many more questions that need to be asked," Fejerang said, adding that criminal sexual conduct laws in other jurisdictions "are much more clear and concise."

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