Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Epstein’s recent arrest reignited questions about how the courts handle child sex-abuse cases. This Jan. 4 article from RealClearInvestigations tells why so many adults get seemingly lenient sentences: It's especially difficult getting young witnesses to testify and they might be re-traumatized. This article focuses on Washington, D.C., but experts say the same dynamics apply widely.
By Max Diamond, RealClearInvestigations
Jan. 4, 2019
After Jessica Lynn Kanya attempted to sexually abuse a 14-year-old child, she was sentenced to 36 months in prison last March. But Lynn served none of that time behind bars when District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Hiram E. Puig-Lago decided to suspend her sentence.
Such leniency is common in Washington, D.C., RealClearInvestigations has found, because of the difficulty of making cases and the alternative to jail presented by the sex-offender registry. Since 2000, almost half of sex offenders convicted in the nation’s capital -- the vast majority child-sex offenders -- have had their sentences cut in half or suspended altogether. Judges do not comment on their rulings, but an analysis of the records of 364 D.C. offenders convicted since 2000 shows that such sentencing is a pervasive practice by more than a dozen judges, who are appointed and not elected.
Sentences are often suspended not just for crimes such as sexually touching a child, which carries jail time of 180 days. In dozens of cases, adult offenders facing years in prison received suspended sentences. The case files, in which the sex of the victims and other details are commonly withheld, include:
- Alfred Jerome Dockery, charged with sexually penetrating a 14-year-old, was sentenced to 42 months in prison. Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin suspended the entire sentence.
- Dominique Anthony Annice, in her early 30s at the time, charged with sexually abusing a 6-year-old. After being sentenced to 30 months in prison, Judge Robert E. Morin suspended her sentence.
- Melvin L. Cromer, who according to the charge “engaged in a sexual act” with a 14-year-old and was sentenced to 60 months in prison. Judge Erik P. Christian suspended his sentence.
- John Anthony, who according to the charge had anal sex with a 10-year-old girl, was initially charged with first-degree child sex abuse. After pleading guilty to a lower charge, he was sentenced to 60 months in prison. But Judge Wendell P. Gardner suspended almost the entire sentence, and Anthony only had to serve six months.
Although there is no national database recording the resolutions of alleged child-sex crimes, experts say Washington faces the same challenges in prosecuting such crimes as everywhere else. The reduced sentences reflect the difficulties and peculiarities of prosecuting crimes involving children and sex.
Unreliable Little Witnesses
These include the challenges of using children – notoriously unreliable as witnesses and prone to trauma – in prosecutions that often lack physical evidence. And, unlike most other offenses, the penalty for sex crimes cannot be measured just through the length of sentences. Almost always there is an additional sanction that can shadow offenders for life: placement on a jurisdiction’s sex offender registry.
James Marsh, a New York-based lawyer who specializes in representing child victims, said there is a tension in such cases “between re-traumatizing the victim through the criminal justice system and obtaining the strongest possible sentence against the perpetrator.”
Deborah Tuerkheimer, professor of law at Northwestern University and a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said a further complication is the relationship built up over time between child and adult. Sometimes the adult has threatened the child, and other times the adult has been good to the child.
“Sometimes the child will even cover up for the abuser,” said Tuerkheimer. “There are psychological reasons why sometimes the children ally themselves with the abuser. Those behaviors can be used against the child and undermine the child’s story.”
But even if a child can testify, that does not entirely solve a prosecutor’s problems, especially given the unlikelihood of there being much solid evidence, like DNA, said Marsh.
Sometimes the prosecution is able to get evidence such as text communications “that the offender might have with the victim, or images that they took of the victim that shows criminal activity,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire. “But physical evidence is often not available.”
Given this difficulty, the prosecutor has to ask himself, “Can I win before a jury?” said Marsh. And, “If I can’t, what is the best I can get from this in terms of a sentence, plea deal, and long-term outcomes?”
Such complications help explain why sex crimes against children – like most crimes in the criminal justice system – are resolved by a plea deal rather than trial. The prosecutors cannot be sure of conviction, and the accused, even if they believe they are innocent or can win at trial, have a powerful incentive to make the case go away.
Prison or the Registry?
Except, of course, it doesn’t, which is the unique complication of such sex offenses: Even convicts with a suspended sentence get placed on a sex offender registry – sometimes for years, but often for life. The FBI lists 55 such registries encompassing the 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Their existence forces lawyers, judges, and activists in the criminal justice system to ask: How do we want to punish offenders -- through prison or through the registry?
“If a prosecutor can get a plea bargain that places [the convict] on the sex offender registry, that is viewed as a good outcome,” said Marsh.
If a judge is looking at a first-time offender, and there has been testimony from a psychologist or psychiatrist that the accused not likely to re-offend, “a judge might say, ‘I’m not going to lock this person up,’” said G. Allen Dale, a criminal defense attorney in D.C. who has handled many sex offender cases. “What purpose would that serve?”
But some criminal justice activists worry that while the registry can keep offenders out of prison, it is also a mark that prevents convicts from getting on with their lives.
It “makes it impossible for people to reintegrate. It’s like social banishment, social death,” said Emily Horowitz, professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.
“The registry publicly outs people,” she said. “Once your picture is up there, you can’t get most jobs, you can’t live a lot of places. You won’t get over whatever it is you did.”
Being a registered sex offender not only creates problems for the convict, but also for his or her family.
“If you have children of your own, it’s a nightmare,” said Dale. “Sometimes you have to have supervision of your own children.” Plus, an offender can’t own a firearm, regularly has to pass polygraph tests, has to clear vacation plans with local authorities, and has to get permission to move from a probation officer, said Dale.
“I’ve had clients whose kids have been picked on by other kids – ‘Your daddy’s a pervert,’” he noted.
But the registries are deeply entrenched because the public considers them necessary, legal experts say.
A Public Demand
“The policies exist because the public feels that it has a right to know, and they need to know” about offenders, said Andrew J. Harris, a professor in the school of criminology and justice studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
William Dobbs, a lawyer and criminal justice activist, attributes this attitude to the “can’t stop, won’t stop mythology” – the idea that such offenders are almost guaranteed to reoffend.
“The truth is the reoffense is among the lowest of any category of offenses,” he said.
Marsh disputes this, calling the claim “absurd.” He argues that studies showing low recidivism rates among sex offenders are due to the fact that “it is a crime that is underreported.”
As for the 10 percent of offenders who officially do tend to reoffend, “there’s very little evidence to suggest the sex offender registry reduces recidivism,” said forensic psychologist Liam Ennis.
Finkelhor, on the other hand, notes that sex offenses have declined 60 to 70 percent since the registries were introduced in 1992.
The registry is just one of the many factors -- along with the difficulties of child witnesses and scant evidence -- that judges and prosecutors have to weigh in such complicated and incendiary cases.
Judges are “typically very concerned about protecting the rights of the accused” in an atmosphere that often demonizes them, said Finkelhor. Striking the right balance is not easy.
“Judges across the board are very worried about being maligned in the public eye as being soft on crime,” said Horowitz. “There’s always so much blowback when the media runs with a story about someone getting a light sentence for anything – but anything with sex is like radioactive, and child sex is radioactive times 10.”
Correction: Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, 10:15 AM Eastern
An earlier version of this article misstated the work location of James Marsh, a lawyer. He is based in New York, not Charlotte, N.C.