With only days left in the session, the S.C. Legislature is on the verge of passing a bill that will target Internet crimes against children, but without the funding to pay for it.
Alicia’s Law – named for the victim of an online sexual predator and sponsored by state Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York – would create a new funding source for the detection and prosecution of online predators who target children.
The bill was unveiled with much fanfare in March at a Statehouse press conference by Pope, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, and several law enforcement officers.
Also present was the law’s namesake, Alicia Kozakiewicz, who in 2002 at the age of 13 was abducted by a 38-year-old man she befriended online. She was held captive four days before police rescued her, and she has spent her adulthood promoting laws to protect kids in the digital world.
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But a Senate vote Thursday stripped the bill of the revenue it would collect from new court fees – an extra 6.1 percent on fines paid by criminal defendants – leaving it unfunded with only days to go in the Legislature’s session.
Supporters of the bill say opponents have waited until the last minute to object to the extra fee in an attempt to derail the legislation.
“There was no objection to this during the committee process,” said Camille Cooper, government affairs director for the National Association to Protect Children, who blamed an effort by defense attorneys to avoid paying the extra cost.
The bill’s supporters ultimately agreed to drop the funding component just to keep it from dying a procedural death during Thursday’s floor vote.
“It’s being held hostage for political reasons,” Cooper said.
Pope’s office estimated the added fines would generate an additional $3.1 million to fight Internet sex crimes. Pope, a former prosecutor, said there’s almost no chance another funding source could be found in the state budget before the session comes to a close Thursday.
“I’m concerned about it logistically because we’re basically done with the budget. It’s already in conference committee,” Pope said. “I would say if you’re concerned it’s an unstable revenue source, leave the funding mechanism in place with fines and fees until we can find a line item in the budget.”
Cooper said her organization, which wants to see all 50 states pass a version of Alicia’s Law, has faced similar opposition in other legislatures but can usually find a compromise. Maryland put the law into its general fund budget, she said, while Arizona set up a dedicated lottery stream with its own game.
“It just has to be funded,” she said.
Greer Weeks, a former executive director of Protect who is working to shepherd the bill through the Legislature, said there’s a need in South Carolina for increased enforcement. National law enforcement figures tracking the sharing of child pornography online have registered activity on up to 7,000 individual computers in South Carolina, he said, but law enforcement officers have the ability to investigate less than 2 percent of the activity detected.
“If you knocked on every door, you would find more victims,” Weeks said, noting that those who traffic in child abuse images are also often the suppliers of those images. “It’s a market. There’s a demand for this, and the only way to keep up is to rape more kids.”
Pope said he hopes to at least ensure the legislation makes it to a conference committee, which would keep the bill alive until the Legislature meets “sine die” – after the legislative session’s official end date – to clear up any outstanding budget issues.
Keeping Alicia’s Law alive isn’t Pope’s only goal heading into the final week of the session. A bill he sponsored creating an independent ethics panel is also stuck in limbo after dueling House and Senate votes.
“All I have to do next week is that and the ethics bill,” he said, “so it should be a walk in the park.”