Fresh from O'Reilly visit, Suwanee woman sounds off

Editor's note: Christy Mellinger of Suwanee, a licensed clinical social worker, appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor," a Fox News show hosted by Bill O'Reilly. She entered the show's "Bloviate with Bill" contest and was named a winner, appearing last week to debate O'Reilly on Jessica's Law, a sex offender law being debated in California. In an e-mail interview with Gwinnett Daily Post staff writer Camie Young, she revealed her stances on some key issues.

Synopsis of mandatory minimum stance:

When I first heard of Jessica Lunsford, my heart ached. I am a mother and cannot imagine what her family must have gone through. I fight for the rights of the children I serve and want legislation introduced in every state that will protect children from sex offenders. However, even though I have been a strong advocate of Jessica's Law, I am concerned that mandatory sentences may have an unintended adverse effect.

I am all for severe punishment for sex offenders. However, I am concerned that mandatory sentences for first-time offenders may encourage sex offenders to plead not guilty when they may have (pleaded) guilty with the option of receiving a lesser sentence. Proving sexual abuse is sometimes very difficult as it is frequently the child's word against the word of the offender. Children are often required to testify in court, facing the abuser. They also have to face criminal defense attorneys who are often skilled in tearing children apart on the stand. Testifying for a child can also be traumatic.

The logic behind mandatory sentencing is that by incarcerating offenders the first time they offend, they do not have the opportunity to re-offend. Sounds good. Keeps them off the streets and away from our kids. But as I was contemplating this idea of sex offenders being put away for a minimum of 25 years or more, it occurred to me that they had to be convicted before they could be put away. Many of the sex offenders currently serving time confessed to their crime in order to receive a lesser sentence. If we take away that option, they may not be willing to plead guilty.

Will mandatory sentencing actually act as a deterrent or just cause offenders to be more careful about covering their tracks? Will mandatory sentencing actually result in having less offenders on the street or will it prevent some offenders from confessing and serving at least some time and being placed on the registered sex offender list? I want sex offenders punished to the full extent the law allows, but will the end result actually be a decrease in sex offenders or just a decrease in convictions?

I am concerned about hasty litigation. A tragedy such as Jessica's death happens. The media puts pressure on lawmakers to do something (which is what the media is supposed to do.) Lawmakers, concerned with polls and re-election, quickly draw together a bill to appease the media. The bill is passed and the media moves on to the next hot topic. Before we pass such litigation, we should carefully examine all possible consequences.

Solution: I don't think there's an easy solution. We have to look at this from a systemic point of view and look at all aspects - not just pass one law. I like the idea of 25-year mandatory minimums - I'm just not convinced that that means every sex offender is going to be put behind bars. It may encourage prosecutors to charge them with a lesser, non-sex related, crime. We need to be able to give some latitude to prosecutors and judges, but we must also have more mechanisms to hold them accountable. If you have a bad judge or prosecutor (which is the exception, not the rule), you are not going to change their behavior by increasing the mandatory sentence. They will just find another way to manipulate the system.

I applaud Bill O'Reilly for his efforts to protect children. His goal is to get Jessica's Law passed in every state. He may very well do so. He will then pat himself on the back and say "Good job, Bill," and he will feel vindicated. My question to Mr. O'Reilly is: Do you want justice or vindication? Do you want to protect children, or do you want revenge for Jessica's death? Probably a bit of all of the above. My challenge to Bill is not to stop after he gets the law passed. Watch how the law is implemented. Continue to hold sex offenders accountable, because one law is not going to make them go away.

The war in Iraq: Of course I hate war of any kind, but I am supportive of our soldiers and believe we should support them in any way we can. I have heard personal testimony from soldiers who have served in Iraq and they tell of the many positive things that are happening. I wish the press would focus more on the positive, such as what our soldiers have done for Baby Noor and other children they have brought over to receive medical care.

I am, however, very concerned about the civil unrest in Iraq now. Our soldiers and the people of Iraq are in my prayers.

Illegal immigration: I am sympathetic to the needs of others coming to our country to seek employment and a better way of life. That is, of course, how our country became great in the first place. We were all descended from immigrants at some point. (With the exception of Native Americans, of course.) However, I believe immigration should be done legally. I am very concerned about border control. Our borders should be strengthened in order to protect us from possible terrorists.

In general, I welcome all peaceful people seeking to come to the U.S. for a better life. But I want my family, friends and all U.S. citizens safe from any possible terrorist strike.

The child welfare system: I think The Georgia (Division) of Family and Children Services takes a great deal of undeserved heat. I have worked with DFCS employees throughout my career and have never met one that did not go into the field for any reason other than helping others. The job is thankless and very difficult. The workers are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. The system could definitely use improvement, but that is not the fault of the workers.

How would I improve the system? First and foremost I would add workers and increase their compensation. DFCS workers are required to have a college degree and two years' experience, but a manager at a convenient store has a higher salary.

Red-light cameras: I am really undecided on this one. Of course, the idea of a camera acting as a police officer makes me uncomfortable. However, if the cameras can cut down the number of accidents, we should consider the benefits before we make a judgment.