BOSTON — A Democratic-controlled legislative committee has, once again, rejected Gov. Charlie Baker's proposal to limit the release of child sexual predators from prison.

The proposal sought to increase the penalty for rape of a child with force by someone who has already been convicted of sexual offenses to life without parole. It also would have established new charges for the rape of multiple children with force, which would carry a mandatory life sentence. The Legislature's Committee on the Judiciary voted to send the proposal to a study, signaling its demise for the current session.

Baker, a Republican, filed the proposal in response to a ruling by the state's highest court clearing the way for the release of Wayne Chapman.

Convicted of raping two Lawrence boys in 1975, Chapman is also a suspect in the 1976 disappearance of Angelo Puglisi Jr., 10, of Lawrence. He has admitted to raping at least 100 boys.

Baker filed similar legislation in 2018 amid news of Chapman's pending release, but lawmakers didn't take it up before the end of the session.

Wendy Murphy, an attorney who represents several of Chapman's victims, said lawmakers are putting politics before the safety of the public by not taking up the governor's proposal.

"These people should be voted out of office," she said. "This will mean more dangerous sex offenders will be able to get out of prison to victimize more children."

The state's Republican Party also criticized the Judiciary Committee's rejection of Baker's proposal.

"You have to wonder who these Democrats are trying to protect," said state Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons. "Gov. Baker's bill would effectively kill any chance that serial child rapists can harm again. This is the kind of legislation that should be automatic."

A 2009 Supreme Judicial Court ruling bars the state from keeping sex offenders in prison if at least two "qualified examiners" determine they’re no longer a threat.

In Chapman’s case, two qualified examiners said he was too old and sick to reoffend — a decision that paved the way for his release, despite opposition from a five-member board that reviewed his case.

Baker's bill would have required a hearing by a new, five-member "sexual dangerousness review board" of psychologists to resolve disputes over the release of a sex offender held under the state's civil commitment law.

The high court's 2009 decision involved George Johnstone, a Fall River man who had pleaded guilty 17 years earlier to indecent assault and battery on a child. Johnstone served a 10-year sentence but was then held under a law allowing the state to keep custody of sex offenders deemed likely to reoffend.

More than 120 sex offenders have been released from a treatment facility at the Bridgewater Correctional Complex under the Johnstone ruling, according to a recent review of state data. In most cases, the Department of Correction and a Community Access Board that reviews sex offender discharges disagreed with the findings of one or more examiners.

Chapman, who has been homeless since leaving jail last summer, now lists the Southampton Street Shelter as his residence, according to the state's Sex Offender Registry Board.

As a Level 3 sex offender, which means he is considered the most likely to re-offend, Chapman is required to check in with Boston police every 30 days.

Baker's proposal was backed by police chiefs and other law enforcement officials who argued that serial rapists like Chapman are likely to reoffend.

But it was opposed by groups such as the state Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents indigent sex offenders. The group has argued that the changes were "unconstitutional and unnecessary" because convicted sex offenders have one of the lowest rates of recidivism.

It's not clear why the 17-member Judiciary Committee — comprised of 13 Democrats, three Republicans and one independent lawmaker — didn't take up the governor's bill. Several members didn't respond to calls seeking comment.

In recent years, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has focused on easing mandatory sentences for minor offenses as part of updates to the state's criminal justice laws, and legislative leaders have been largely reluctant to take up proposals to increase penalties for serious crimes.

Baker has filed a bill to toughen laws on pretrial release for people who commit violent felonies, but that proposal has also languished in committee.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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