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Molesters getting a slap on the wrist?

Lack of jail time in cases sparks sentencing debate

Eric Hartley, The Capital, Annapolis, April 22, 2007

In a culture where NBC's "To Catch a Predator" specials draw high ratings during sweeps months and states are passing versions of "Jessica's Law" to crack down on child molesters, the sentences were jarring to many. [...]  The two recent county cases, among others, have sparked public debate about how the courts handle child sex abusers.

On one side are those who say courts are too lenient and need to impose long prison sentences to protect the public. 
On the other side, some judges and experts say a psychiatric problem can't be cured by incarceration and the best way to protect children in the long run is to give offenders mental health treatment.

"It appears that the courts are negligent when it comes to child molesters and other heinous crimes, which is made evident by the lenient sentences handed down by the courts," said Del. Don Dwyer, R-Glen Burnie. "There appears to be a philosophy in this state and this county of being soft on crime. The biggest complaint I get from citizens is the revolving door of the justice system."

Ronald A. Silkworth, a county Circuit Court judge, said the public often is not informed about what goes into sentencing. Some people have called his office to complain about sentences in past molestation cases. He said the law instructs judges to balance punishment, deterrence, protection of the public and rehabilitation in every case. 

"The judges have to follow the law," he said. "They can't follow some political notion." 

Dr. Fred S. Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore, said American society has largely tried to solve the problem of child abuse using the criminal justice system, which hasn't worked. 

"We can't punish away or legislate away a psychiatric disorder," Dr. Berlin said. "If we send someone to prison who is sexually attracted to children and that's all we do, there's nothing about prison that can erase those attractions or lessen that person's likelihood of acting out on them. And sooner or later, like it or not, most of these people are gong to get out."

Judge Silkworth said the "public clamor" for tougher sentences is understandable.

"But ultimately, if you're trying to deter and trying to protect, you're trying to do what you can to ensure that that behavior not repeat itself," he said. "It's not really fair (for) a judge who would impose some kind of treatment to do that to be characterized as soft."

Recent cases

The four-month jail sentence, along with eight months of house arrest, handed to a Severna Park real estate agent in March drew national attention on Bill O'Reilly's cable talk show, which showed a reporter confronting Judge Joseph P. Manck at his home. Mr. O'Reilly called the judge "a coward who will not explain his inexplicable sentence," according to a transcript, though Judge Manck said ethics rules barred him from speaking publicly about the case.

"I thought that was tremendously unfair," said defense lawyer Laura Robinson, who wasn't involved in the case. "It's an ambush attack. It's a one-sided story." 

The case also prompted letters to the editor of this newspaper sharply critical of Judge Manck. The second sentencing, which happened only Wednesday, already has drawn criticism from a host on local radio station WRNR. In that case, Judge Philip T. Caroom made a point of specifically noting the public sentiment that child molesters need to be locked up for as long as possible. 

But he said he didn't think that was the best way to ensure the defendant, 29-year-old James Matthew Thomas, doesn't hurt another child. Thomas has serious mental health issues and will likely get little treatment in prison, Judge Caroom said. 

"That is a valid concern," said Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center. "But protecting the safety of the community is another concern, in addition to rehabilitation."

Judge Caroom said he wanted to impose the longest possible period of house arrest available through the jail and probation systems, about 5 years in all. He sharply limited Thomas' movements, saying he can leave the house only for work and treatment and will not be able to work any place children are likely to go.

Thomas could face 20 years in prison if he violates probation. State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee, who believes county judges need to impose longer sentences for molesters, said punishment and treatment aren't mutually exclusive. 

"If we can provide treatment, we should do that," he said. "First there should be some punishment."

Numbers game

Though it's an emotionally loaded issue, much of the debate comes down to something as dry as statistics. If the recidivism rate for child molesters is alarmingly high, as many people seem to believe, then there's little hope of rehabilitation and prison is probably a better answer. 

"Some of these people, if they're pedophiles, you can give them all the treatment in the world and it's not going to make an iota's worth of difference," Mr. Butler said. "Child pedophiles are likely to recitative. It is not like you just made a bad decision. It's almost innate to them to be fatally attracted to children."

Dr. Berlin said the actual numbers aren't so clear cut. A 2003 U.S. Justice Department study looking at nearly 10,000 sex offenders who'd been released from prison in 1994 found that 5.3 percent were arrested for another sex crime within three years. And of the approximately 4,300 of those men who were child molesters, 3.3 percent were charged with molesting another child within three years. In a study of 600 men who'd been treated at Dr. Berlin's clinic, many of them repeat offenders, less than 8 percent re-offended over five years.

"Sex offenders as a group have a lower rate of recidivism than people who commit other kinds of serious offenses," said Dr. Berlin, who was surprised himself by some of the numbers. "That's a far cry from the common perception."

Mr. Dwyer, who's on the House Judiciary Committee, said numbers presented by experts to the committee have shown a far higher recidivism rate. And there are studies that show higher numbers. In a recent article, The New York Times reported that R. Karl Hanson, a Canadian researcher, analyzed hundreds of small studies and found that about 15 percent of sex offenders are arrested again within five years, and people with "deviant" sexual interests are more likely than others to re-offend.  Regardless of the real numbers, Mr. Dwyer said, 

"I don't think the answer is allowing for lesser sentences and allowing the people back out on the street, where they can once again wreak havoc on the community. These are absolutely devastating crimes."

Cracking down

In 2005, 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Florida was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by a convicted sex offender. Since then, many states have passed some version of "Jessica's Law," including Maryland, whose 2006 law mandates 25-year prison terms for people convicted of first-degree rape or first-degree sexual offenses and five-year terms for people convicted of some lesser charges. This year, lawmakers tightened the law by eliminating parole from the sentences.

But Mr. Weathersbee, the state's attorney, said Jessica's Law will do little in this county because it covers only the most serious cases. It won't affect most child sex abuse cases that the courts see day to day. Dr. Berlin agreed that Jessica's Law does little to address most sex offenders.

"Almost all the current legislation that's out there is based on the exception rather than the rule," he said.

Mr. Dwyer said the only way to get tougher sentences for most sex offenses might be to get different judges, a process that will take years as judges retire. That also could require public pressure, he said.

"Jessica's Law only got passed in this state because of the public outrage," Mr. Dwyer said. "It wasn't the political will."

Ms. Robinson, the defense attorney and a former prosecutor, said sex offense cases are often very tough to prosecute because witnesses are children, often relatives of the defendant. Many victims' families are reluctant to force children to go through a trial, which forces prosecutors to compromise and accept lesser sentences under plea agreements.

"I've never met a judge or a prosecutor who did not take these cases extremely seriously," Ms. Robinson said. "You're compromising these very difficult cases to get these child sex offenders into a system where we can watch and monitor them."

Lisae C. Jordan, legislative counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said a comprehensive monitoring system created last year for sexual offenders shows some promise. It includes satellite monitoring of some offenders, mandatory counseling and restrictions on offenders' movements.

But Ms. Jordan said focusing on the worst offenders or looking only at the court system can give the public a "false sense of security." Most sex offenders aren't locked up, she said - not because of lenient judges, but because their victims never tell anyone. She said more focus needs to be put on prevention and victims need to be encouraged to come forward and report crimes too often perpetrated by those they trust.

"It's very disturbing to think that people believe 'If we just keep these guys in jail, my kid's going to be safe,' " Ms. Jordan said. "That's not true. Most sex offenders aren't going to prison because most of them aren't convicted."

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