Showdown looms over sex crime mandatory sentences

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(Host) Vermont is likely to see a showdown in the Statehouse over legislation that imposes mandatory minimum sentences for serious sex crimes.

The House rejected the minimums, but the bill got a new lease on life in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) A week ago, the outlook for the bill wasn’t very good. Only two members of the committee openly supported a plan to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for a variety of sex crimes.

Then word filtered back to the panel that a majority of senators wanted to support a compromise – one that applied the mandatory sentence to a single crime – aggravated sexual assault.

So the committee members had a choice – reject all mandatory minimums and face a major fight on the Senate floor or pass out a limited bill.

Windsor senator John Campbell opposes mandatory sentences but he says he supported the compromise plan in order to dilute support for a much tougher bill:

(Campbell) “A compromise had to be reached within the Judiciary committee or else there was a very strong likelihood that the mandatory minimums would actually apply to lesser crimes.”

(Kinzel) Many local prosecutors and victim’s advocacy groups oppose a mandatory minimum bill. They fear it will force prosecutors to take less than solid cases to trial because they’ll no longer be able to plea bargain – a situation that often results in an offender serving some time in jail and remaining under the supervision of the state.

They note that the acquittal rate for cases that go to trial is 50 %.

Campbell says this argument seems lost on the general public particularly after Judge Cashman’s controversial sentence in a case involving the repeated sexual assault of a young girl:

(Campbell) “It’s a very difficult argument to understand because it’s counter intuitive to what we feel in our gut. So there’s a possibility that if this vote did get to the Senate floor that the public pressure would probably overwhelm the actual appearance and intellectual discussion of what most likely would happen in these cases. So we’ve averted that.”

(Kinzel) Jennifer Poehlman is the advocate for the Vermont Center for Crime Victims Services. She says the turn of events in the Senate is a disappointment.

(Poehlman) “When you have an issue that unites every stakeholder in the criminal justice system in one direction, which is to say this is bad policy, those are the people who work in the system and that know the impact it has on victims. When you have that kind of unification and you have a policy that’s being debated by the Legislature that is counter to that and that looks like it will pass counter to that, it is concerning.”

(Kinzel) The committee hopes to take final action on the bill by the end of the week.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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