RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia State Crime Commission will spend a lot of time talking about sex crimes this year.
Among the assignments the 2013 General Assembly gave the commission is to conduct a comprehensive review of the reporting, investigation and tracking of child sexual abuse cases. According to the resolution mandating the study, there are agency-to-agency inconsistences in the way the more than 5,000 annual reports of child sexual abuse are handled.
The resolution says that "these differences may result in opportunities for individuals who are alleged to have committed child sexual abuse and who are the subjects of investigations to destroy evidence, intimidate victims, or otherwise interfere with the conduct of such investigations."
A work group of social services and law enforcement officials will be tasked with helping the commission's staff compile a report and make recommendations for next year's legislative session. Kristen Howard, the commission's executive director, said the work group likely will start meeting in June.
One specific issue that will be part of the study is sex between teachers and high school students who have turned 18. Under current law, taking indecent liberties with a minor by a person in a "custodial or supervisory relationship" is a felony. However, it's not a crime once the younger person reaches age 18. The study will examine whether that should be changed.
The commission also will examine proposals to toss out prostitution charges or convictions of defendants who were forced into prostitution, and to allow prior sex crime convictions to be introduced as evidence in sexual abuse cases.
Commission officials said it's just a coincidence that sex crimes dominate the agenda.
"There's no master plan," said Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County and chairman of the commission. "Each of these issues seems to be something we can study and do something about to improve the criminal justice system."
Howard said it's not the first time a single area of crime has received the bulk of the attention. A few years ago, she said, the commission focused heavily on domestic violence and protective orders.
Several of the sex crime measures were introduced in the last legislative session but were held over for further review. The crime commission's endorsement doesn't guarantee passage, but it does carry significant weight with lawmakers.
House and Senate versions of bills allowing the introduction of prior sexual abuse convictions into evidence sailed through their originating chambers before prosecutors raised some concerns that put the measures on hold until next year, Bell said.
"If someone committed a crime like this in the past, he's more likely to commit one in the future," said Bell, who sponsored the House version of the bill. "It's something the jury would find helpful in a he-said, she-said case."
The Senate unanimously passed the forced-prostitution legislation, but it bogged down in a House committee amid debate over how to define the level of coercion that would justify expunging a charge or conviction.
"There are those who are forced through physical threat," Bell said. "There are those who are deliberately isolated from friends and parents. There are issues where drugs are involved. The current legal doctrines of duress don't apply to all of that very cleanly."
Bell said lawmakers also want to make sure that in providing relief for women forced into prostitution, they don't unwittingly make it more difficult to prosecute the sex traffickers.
The commission also will study legislation allowing a prosecutor to join a defense attorney in a petition to exonerate a person they believe was wrongly convicted. The inmate could then be released on bail pending an appellate court ruling on a petition for exoneration.
That bill was prompted by the case of Johnathan Montgomery, who spent four years in prison before a woman recanted her story that he had molested her when she was 10. A circuit court judge, with the support of the local prosecutor, exonerated Montgomery and ordered him freed. But the order was blocked by Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, who said only an appellate court could toss out the conviction.
Montgomery spent 12 more days in prison before Gov. Bob McDonnell granted a conditional pardon. However, the Virginia Court of Appeals still has not fully exonerated Montgomery.