Committee debates mandatory minimum sentence plan

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(Host) The Senate Judiciary Committee is hotly debating a plan to impose mandatory minimum sentences for cases of aggravated sexual assault.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The issue was highlighted earlier this session when Judge Edward Cashman handed down a controversial ruling in the case of young girl who had been sexually assaulted over a 4-year period.

The House chose not to impose mandatory minimums because it felt the plan took too much discretion away from judges- instead it increased penalties for many of these crimes and expanded the number of special sex crime units throughout the state.

Now the issue is being debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Committee Chairman Dick Sears supports a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for all cases of aggravated sexual assault:

(Sears) “I think that reasonable mandatory minimums are an appropriate part of the bill. At this point I’m struggling to get 3 or 4 votes for the mandatory minimum proposal.”

(Kinzel) Most prosecutors oppose the plan – they think it will lead to more trials because it will reduce their ability to negotiate a plea bargain.

Sarah Kenney, who represents the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, shares this concern:

(Kenney) “What we hear is probably virtually all cases will go to trial. So we know that in the state of Vermont over 60% of crimes of sexual violence that go to trial the defendant is acquitted and that does not feel like the best outcome from anybody’s perspective except potential that defendant.”

(Kinzel) Rutland Senator Wendy Wilton is urging the committee to include a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years for cases when the victim is 12 or younger. Wilton says people who oppose her efforts haven’t done their homework.

(Wilton) “I’ve gone outside the testimony room here at the Statehouse and I’ve actually broadened my research horizons to what are other states doing – what’s been the impact in other states. I think what I hear here is a lot of unsubstantiated fear because nobody has brought me any numbers to show that other states have done this and its been a disaster.”

(Kinzel) Windsor County Senator John Campbell opposes mandatory minimums and thinks people who are pushing for exceptionally large sentences are misleading the public:

(Campbell) “I think that what you’re seeing right now is politics of fear. You get a nice soundbite that says let’s put them in jail and lock them up and send them away for 25 years. They’re distorting and manipulating these facts and the testimony just to serve their purpose – in my mind political purpose.”

(Kinzel) The committee plans to take some additional testimony on the bill and hopes to vote on the legislation sometime next week.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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