CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A legislative committee said Tuesday it will seek millions of dollars to combat sex crimes against children by hiring 50 new state troopers, which would more than double the size of this year's class of cadets.
The Select Committee on Crimes Against Children presented a package of proposals aimed at protecting children during a news conference at the Capitol. Despite an austere budget environment, the committee plans to seek $5.7 million in funding for the new troopers and also wants $250,000 in funding for child advocacy centers throughout the state.
"We know this is a difficult budget year. We have a large dollar sign on our Christmas wish list, but we think this issue is critical for our state," said Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.
If approved, the funding would authorize West Virginia State Police to expand its overall ranks to a total of about 750. This year's class of cadets had about 20 people enrolled.
Committee chairwoman Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, said she's had conversations with House leadership about the budget proposals and that through sharing already appropriated funding, "we can do this."
West Virginia State Police said if it is able to enroll 50 new people into its cadet class, it would be able to reassign more experienced troopers to its Crimes Against Children Unit as soon as the replacement troopers are trained and equipped. Currently, 18 troopers are assigned to the unit, said First Sgt. Daniel Swiger, deputy director of the unit.
By 2018, State Police want to have 85 uniformed members of the crimes against children unit in place.
The unit was formed in 2006. Since then, the number of registered sex offenders has grown from 1,675 to 4,178 in 2012. The number of criminal offenses grew from 193 to 909 in that same period. So far this year, the unit's digital forensic section has logged 391 cases, according to state police.
The committee also wants stiffer penalties for those who repeatedly view child pornography and to prohibit child visitation by those who committed a sexual assault. The committee is also calling for the creation of a misdemeanor child abuse crime for creating a substantial risk of injury to a child.
Under current child abuse law, someone can only be charged with a crime if they seriously injure a child. Lawmakers on the committee said the proposal to add a misdemeanor crime for abuse or neglect that puts a child at risk of harm would give prosecutors better options when reviewing cases.
The Legislature's 2014 session begins in January.