Friday, October 21, 2005

Of Two Minds: Mandatory Sentencing In Child Sexual Abuse Cases

I preface the title of this post with "Of Two Minds" because that's the dilemma I find myself in on this issue. I cannot decide if I support this bill or not and, hopefully, some kind readers will relay their opinions to help inform mine.

My contemplation of this issue was spurred on by a conversation this morning on Wisconsin Public Radio (of which I am now a proud member!) with Representative Scott Suder (R - Abbotsford) about introducing "Jessica's Law" from Florida into Wisconsin.

From WisPolitics:

Wisconsin’s “Jessica’s Law,” named after Jessica Lunsford a 9-year old Florida girl who was raped and brutally murdered by a convicted sex offender, will require strict mandatory minimum prison sentences of 25 years to life for sex offenders who sexually assault children.

“It is time to bring “Jessica’s Law” to Wisconsin to protect our children,” Suder stated. “Wisconsin needs a mandatory minimum sentence for child sex offenders to keep these monsters off our streets and away from other potential victims.”

This issue seems like slam-dunk for Suder, at first glance. After all, who doesn't support protecting children? In his interview on WPR, he must have used the phrase " for the children" at least 100 times. And yet, maybe the issue is not so clear as all that. As I said, I am of two minds:

Samurai Sam, Father of Three

It would not take much to convince me that those who commit sexual abuse to children 13 and under should not be locked up, but rather executed. Painfully. In public. How can there be a more detestable crime, particularly given the vulnerability of the victims? Often times the perpetrators of such crimes are parents or other family members, which essentially shatters that child for the rest of their lives. I would likely sleep better knowing that no one caught committing such an act will ever be allowed on the streets again while my children are still children. I realize that abusive people are created by abuse and that they need treatment, not imprisonment, but I don't care. I don't want my children to be part of a statistical analysis of recidivism among serial child abusers. Better to lock them away, if only just to keep my children safe.

Samurai Sam, Aspiring Free Thinker

The notion of locking away sexual predators to protect future victims is compelling. However, it is also very problematic. Suder claims the law will be designed to discourage sexual predators from "flocking" to Wisconsin. However, it seems to me that sexual predation is largely a crime of opportunity. Plus, if we adopted "Jessica's Law" as a nationwide standard, as Suder suggests, then the playing field levels out again anyway.

Further, I believe mandatory sentencing guidelines are anathema to our justice system. Each case is unique, which is why judges must have the discretion to rule appropriately. The state legislature does not have sufficient involvement on a case-by-case basis to legislate such standards fairly. Plus, there is the added danger of an erroneous conviction. Sexual abuse cases are notoriously difficult to prove and false convictions are a very real concern.

Finally, sexual predation on children is not a rational act, in spite of Suder's claims about the intelligence of the perpetrators. It's a mental illness that requires treatment and a mandatory sentence of 25 years really removes any incentive to offer that treatment. Suder claims, correctly, that no treatment is fool-proof. But the mentally ill have rights and it seems a dangerous step to begin denying those rights based on a perceived public good.

As you can see, the issue is quite thorny. Please comment on how you feel about this issue. Should "Jessica's Law" be passed in Wisconsin, or even nationwide? Or does the discretion need to remain with the sentencing judges and the focus be on prevention and treatment? "Jessica's Law" has received resounding support from prominent conservative groups and passed unanimously in Florida.

It's a tough question...

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