CHEYENNE - People convicted of first-degree sexual assault against a minor would face a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison under a bill that received preliminary approval in the Wyoming House of Representatives on Thursday.
The House must still approve the proposal two more times before it can head to the Senate.
The bill would set the penalty range at 15 to 50 years in prison, up from the existing range of zero to 50 years. The House rejected a proposed amendment to set the minimum prison term at 25 years.
Proponents of the bill said the state needs to establish that it's tough on those who prey on children. First-degree sexual assault charges are usually filed in cases when the victim is very young or the defendant exploits a position of trust over a child, such as when the perpetrator is a parent or stepparent.
Opponents, however, said mandatory minimum sentences take discretion out of judges' hands. They said mandatory minimums allow prosecutors essentially to determine prison sentences by selecting which law they use to file charges against a defendant.
Rep. Lori Millin, D-Cheyenne, the bill's sponsor, said statistics show that by the time perpetrators are finally convicted of sexual assault against children, they've commonly committed many earlier offenses.
"These are our children, and I believe that those who prey upon our children should feel the full measure of the law," Millin said.
Rep. Lorraine Quarberg, R-Thermopolis, proposed increasing the mandatory minimum sentence to 25 years.
"I ask myself, 'Will the penalty fit the crime?' " Quarberg said. "In my opinion, 15 years is not enough. The standard norm across the country is 25 years, so I ask the body to make that decision."
On the question of whether to approve the 15-year mandatory minimum, Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, said it would be up to a prosecutor whether to charge a 16-year-old defendant as an adult. Conviction in juvenile court would carry a much lighter sentence.
Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said it would be wrong to give that discretion to the prosecutor instead of the judge. He urged people to vote against the bill.
Thirty-seven House members voted for bill. There are 60 members of the House, but the exact number of members who voted against it wasn't announced.