SAN JOSE - The mother of teenager Audrie Pott, who committed suicide in 2012 after being sexually abused at a party, today in San Jose criticized opponents of a bill to give mandatory sentences to juveniles convicted of sexually abusing unconscious and disabled victims.
Sheila Pott and her attorney Robert Allard held a news conference in Allard's San Jose office to urge the state Assembly Public Safety Committee to pass SB 838, called Audrie's Law, at a hearing set for Tuesday morning in Sacramento.
SB 838, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, would require judges to impose a mandatory two-year sentence on minors who sexually abuse people who were unconscious or disabled and open the court proceedings in such cases to the public.
The bill, drafted by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, passed the state Senate 35-0 but has attracted resistance in the Assembly and will face a "tough" hearing with the committee, according to Beall.
The Sacramento-based California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, made up of criminal defense lawyers, has recently come out strongly against the bill, as has the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.
The seven-member Public Safety Committee, chaired by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, will take up the bill with 15 others that must pass by June 30 to become law, Ammiano's spokesman Carlos Alcala said.
According Sheila and Audrie's legal father Lawrence Pott, Audrie, 15, hanged herself in her mother's home in Los Altos in 2012 out of despair from being sexually assaulted by three teen boys at a party while she was passed out from drinking alcohol.
The Potts have alleged in a wrongful death lawsuit that the boys also drew on her body and took photos of her partially nude. Students at Saratoga High School, where they all attended classes, were informed about it and some viewed the photos.
The three teenagers who pleaded guilty in the sexual abuse of Audrie received light sentences of only 30 to 45 days because current law makes assaulting someone who is comatose less serious than someone who is conscious when the crime is committed, Pott said.
Beall's proposed law would require juveniles convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious or disabled person to serve at least two years in juvenile custody, Pott said.
"We feel this is the step we need to make in the right direction to protect other young men and woman, and to protect the victims and not the criminals," Pott said.
While housed in the juvenile custody for two years, convicts "would be able to get the proper treatment by trained county employees, counselors so that they can be reformed, learn from their mistakes and go back out into society and go back out into college and become responsible, respectable young men and women," Pott said.
Allard said that the time spent by juvenile convicts would be used for rehabilitation and training to prevent them from offending again.
Two of the three boys convicted of assaulting Audrie have "reoffended" since they were released last year from the county juvenile justice system "because they have not been trained properly, they have not been educated," Allard said.
But Lizzie Buchen, spokeswoman for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said the group finds Beall's bill "disturbing" because it would for the first time establish mandatory minimum sentencing in the juvenile justice system.
Unlike the punishment-oriented adult criminal system, the juvenile system focuses on rehabilitating youth offenders and judges need the flexibility to consider things like treatment, probation and jail time as options, Buchen said.
Juveniles are more susceptible to peer influence and the behavior of groups than adults are, Buchen said.
Neuroscience and brain research has shown juveniles are less culpable for their actions and being involved in sex offenses at a young age is not an indicator of becoming a sex offender as an adult, she said.
What happened to Audrie, being sexually assaulted while comatose, was "a terrible offense" but "mandatory minimums will not prevent these offenses from taking place," Buchen said.
The public safety committee would have to vote at least 4-3 in favor of SB 838 for it to proceed to a fiscal committee and then the full Assembly, and then would need a two-thirds vote from members to pass, Alcala said.
Ammiano is trying to work with Beall on possible amendments to the bill that might assuage opponents, Alcala said.
The effort to pass Audrie's Law has also received support from 139,773 people who had signed an online petition with change.org on its website as of today.