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Bill would impose life sentence for some sex offenders

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RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - A first-of-its-kind bill that would put some sex offenders behind bars for the rest of their lives is up for debate in the General Assembly Tuesday night.

House bill 1271 and Senate bill 436, part of Governor Bob McDonnell's public safety agenda, would toughen laws targeting sex offenders.

One bill would impose mandatory sentencing for people convicted of sexually abusing a child under 13 years of age. The other bill would create a database for law enforcement of juvenile sex offenders.

Governor Bob McDonnell said that if his public safety agenda were approved, it would make Virginia a safer place to live and help bring justice to sexually abused children.

"The governor has said that, for offenders who prey on our most vulnerable members of society, which are children, that there's no place for these folks on the streets and that they deserve to spend the rest of their life in prison," said Taylor Thornley, McDonnell's spokesperson.

McDonnell said one reason for the change is that judge's sentences for convicted sexual predators often vary too much.

In fact, Thornley said sentencing has varied from a couple of months to 25 years or more.

A mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years for these crimes is currently state law.

However, the bill's mandatory sentences have some defense attorneys concerned since the law would essentially revoke a judge's sentencing discretion.

"I think it's a bad idea and the reason is, it really takes all of the discretion out of the hands of a judge, who has the ability to weigh the strength of the case, the mitigation evidence, the problems that may exist with the defendant, whose been convicted of something like this," said Defense Attorney Bill Dinkin.

Additionally, Dinkin said the change would unfairly favor prosecutors and likely force more plea bargains. Also, he said it would risk subjecting some people to mandatory sentences – even when there are mitigating circumstances like mental health issues.

Stop Child Abuse Now, a group working to prevent child abuse, supports the governor's mandatory minimum for sex crimes against children under 13.

Officials said life in prison would not only bring justice to a sexually assaulted child, but would help protect other children from becoming potential victims.