Pa. lawmakers debate victim protection, vigilante justice in bill proposal

Mar. 19—HARRISBURG — A bill proposing to allow victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking to potentially avoid criminal penalty in a revenge crime advanced through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Monday.

House Bill 1843 passed 125-76 with all 102 Democrats plus 23 Republicans voting in support. It now moves to the state Senate for further consideration.

The bill advanced on the first day of voting in the House in 2024 following an extended winter break for repairs to water damage in the House chamber.

Introduced by Rep. Kyle Donahue, D-Lackawana, the Child Sex Crimes Victims Protection Act is meant to allow judicial discretion in cases that don't meet the legal definition of self-defense because of a lack of imminent harm.

Rather, the bill would allow judges to consider the compounding emotional and physical trauma caused by sexual abuse or human trafficking within one year of a revenge crime.

A child would first have to be convicted of a crime against an alleged abuser. Either the defense or prosecutor could then motion to hold a hearing where "clear and convincing evidence" would be needed to justify this judicial consideration.

If convinced that sexual abuse was a factor inspiring the crime, the bill proposes to allow a judge to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence, render the case closed with a guilty verdict but without further penalty, or transfer the case to juvenile court. Judges would also be permitted to reduce or waive fines, court costs and restitution.

Opponents carefully argued against the bill, not its intent but its constitutionality and potential precedent.

"Allowing a judge that kind of latitude to possibly impose no sentence does not correct what happened to that victim," Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin, said during floor remarks. "To allow people to carry out justice as one person, to me, goes against our Constitution."

Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, said judges should be permitted to consider sexual abuse as a mitigating factor, calling it a compassionate approach for an offender who's also a victim.

The proposal sets aside centuries of criminal law and serves to set precedent for excusing accountability in a crime as serious as homicide, Rep. Timothy Bonner, R-Mercer/Butler, said.

He said the bill language could apply to people up to 19 years of age and wouldn't require the victim in the case to have been formally accused or charged with abuse or trafficking.

The bill, Bonner said, gives credibility to vigilante justice.

"'Justice for all' does not allow people to take it into their own hands, into the streets. We see too much of that in America today. This bill will actually lead to more violence than it will remediate," Bonner said.