Legislation getting its first hearing in Olympia raises the stakes and penalties for those who are caught neglecting or taking advantage of a vulnerable adult. Cathy MacCaul, AARP Washington advocacy director, said House Bill 1499 makes the criminal charges more serious, which backers hope will be a deterrent. For instance, she said, the bill would make it easier to prove theft.
"What we want to do is really elevate that to a Class 6 felony, which will basically entail significant jail time," she said. "There are predatory people who take advantage of elderly. We want people to know that, here in Washington state, that's unacceptable."
The bill creates the crime of "theft from a vulnerable adult," with a higher sentence range for people who steal a felony-level amount of money. Currently, people convicted of theft can serve weeks or up to three months in jail. MacCaul said the tougher penalties reflect the fact that these types of crimes put an older person's life at risk, not only their financial health.
The legislation also would increase the statue of limitations for financial exploitation to six years. Senior deputy prosecuting attorney Page Ulrey, who prosecutes elder-abuse cases for King County, said these crimes often are committed by someone the person trusts who manages to nab their life's savings.
"The victim may have dementia or they were reluctant to report, or they didn't even know that the crime was happening to them," she said. "Because the statute of limitations for theft right now is only three years, we have faced situations where we've been unable to file charges because too much time has passed."
The bill has seven co-sponsors and is in the House Committee on Public Safety. No organized opposition has surfaced, although defense attorneys could take issue with the proposed changes.
The bill is online at apps.leg.wa.gov.
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WA Groups Work to Increase Penalties for Elder Exploitation