Some question whether tougher penalties actually make public safer

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(Dillon) Some prosecutors and advocates for victims question whether tougher penalties actually work to make the public safer from sexual predators.

Governor Douglas and Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie support a law that would impose a mandatory minimum 25 year sentence for someone convicted of sexual assault on a minor.

The issue has been debated before in Vermont, and experts have raised several concerns.

(Sorrell) Victim’s advocacy groups and prosecutors, if not unanimously then all but unanimously, opposed it.

(Dillon) Attorney General William Sorrell says prosecutors often work with victims who may be reluctant to testify in court.

In those cases, prosecutors often negotiate a plea bargain to obtain a guilty plea and avoid a trial. 

(Sorrell) If a Jessica’s Law applies and there’s a 25 year minimum whether a defendant pleads guilty or goes through and is convicted by a jury, there’s no incentive to plead guilty.

(Dillon) Karen Tronsgard-Scott is executive director of the Vermont Network against domestic and sexual violence.

She’s also against long mandatory minimum sentences. She says more cases will go to trial, and that two thirds of the cases that are tried end in acquittal.

(Scott) I have myself sat in the courtroom many times watching this play out, where a victim is seeking justice and seeking retribution, and is completely traumatized through he process of having to sit in the courtroom and look at the offender and the offender is acquitted because there is not enough evidence.

(Dillon)Tronsgard-Scott says statutes like Jessica’s Law may not end up protecting the public.

(Scott) Long mandatory sentences I think give us a false sense of security in making us believe that a law – any law – will take care of child sexual abuse. … That’s just not the case.

(Dillon) Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand says the Legislature has already lengthened sentences for child sexual abuse.

(Sand) The punishment end really is not what provides effective deterrence, particularly where we already have the possible sentence of 10 years to life. What is going to provide for greater deterrence and public safety is increasing the likelihood of apprehension and then strengthening the quality of our prosecutions. 

(Dillon) Three years ago, the legislature passed a law expanding these units as soon as possible to all counties in the state. But Sand said some units still lack state police detectives assigned specifically to sex crimes.

Sand also wants the law changed to allow for DNA samples to be taken from anyone who is arrested. And he wants prosecutors to be able to introduce evidence of a defendant’s prior sexual assaults.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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