“Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—both are detestable to the LORD.” (Proverbs 17:15 NLT)

Congressman Major R. Owens at the opening of a field hearing on child sexual abuse in New York on April 20, 1992, stated “Ignoring or mistreating child sexual abuse is tantamount to allowing an untreated cancer to grow in our society.” (http://justiceforchildren.org/about-us/system-is-failing-our-children/)

At that hearing, experts and parents testified concerning the obstacles to addressing and remedying this problem. David Paterson, a state senator from New York, testified that one of every three young girls and one of every five boys become the victims of child sexual abuse and that a high percentage of those most afflicted repeat the cycle.

This federal hearing was convened in response to a state-level investigation conducted by then-Assemblyman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who concluded that the system has failed miserably to protect sexually abused children. Unfortunately, over 24 years have passed since those hearings, yet, reports of child abuse and neglect nationwide continue to rise.

This increase is the direct result of the failure of our legal system to protect known victims of abuse. This crisis is even more critical as it affects children who are unable to fight for themselves. According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well. (page 5)

The courts and the victims

Unfortunately, there are no national statistics on the number of prosecutions for child sexual abuse. It is clear, however, that thousands of criminal cases are filed each year.

In many cases, the strength of the evidence depends on the child’s ability to testify. Children are usually the only eyewitnesses to sexual abuse, and prosecutors are more likely to file criminal charges when they believe children will be effective witnesses. Not surprisingly, age plays a role in prosecutorial decision making. Preschool-age children are sometimes ineffective witnesses, with the tragic consequence that the law is least able to protect the youngest and most vulnerable victims.

Plea Bargaining

Once criminal charges are filed, prosecutors engage in plea bargaining with defense attorneys representing defendants. In many cases, the defendant pleads guilty to a less serious offense than originally charged, or agrees to plead guilty to the original charge in exchange for the prosecutor’s commitment to recommend leniency when the judge pronounces sentence. Approximately 66% of all child sexual abuse charges end in guilty pleas to lesser charges before trial. (http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/ascii/fpcseo06.txt)

Diversion from Prosecution

In some jurisdictions, prosecutors have authority to divert selected defendants away from prosecution for child sexual abuse and into treatment. Criminal proceedings are suspended on the condition of specified obligations by the defendant, often including participation in counseling or treatment. Upon successful completion or compliance with the conditions of diversion, the case is dismissed.

Sentencing and conviction

Although most cases that go to trial end in conviction, as a result of plea bargaining, diversion, and dismissal for other reasons, the number of sex abuse cases that go all the way to trial is very small. Only 10% of all cases filed by prosecutors are ever tried.

Many believe that convicted child molesters often receive long prison terms. However,  many individuals convicted of child sexual abuse do not go to prison. Instead, their punishment consists of a suspended prison sentence and/or probation. The average length of probation for felony convictions is two to three years.

Sex Offender Registration Laws

In large part because of the fear and belief that sex offenders will reoffend, many states require convicted sex offenders to register with local law enforcement agencies and to change their registration when they move. In several cases, sex offenders have successfully challenged the constitutionality of registration laws, arguing that such laws constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The Sex Offender Registration law (SOR) does not have any restrictions on registered sex offenders. This is a common misperception. The only restrictions placed on a convicted sex offender are done so by the judge as part of the conditions of probation. In most states the SOR does not have the legal jurisdiction to prevent an offender from attending events, limiting employment, restrict an offender from entering any facilities, or refrain from living with or socializing with children or vulnerable persons. The SOR law can only mandate the offender to register his or her required information within the required time. This means that a convicted sex offender has the freedom to frequent, and even work, at or near schools, parks, museums, public pools and day care facilities, unless prohibited by the conditions of their probation!

What Can We Do?

“An urgent need exists for federal action to ensure that laws in our states pertaining to child abuse and neglect, whether physical or sexual, whether family member or stranger, are strengthened to protect children. By aggressively intervening on a timely basis on behalf of the child, and by ensuring that the legal rights of the child are observed in any subsequent judicial proceeding, our government can stop both the actual and systemic abuse of the child.” —Randy Burton, founder and president of the child advocacy organization Justice for Children http://justiceforchildren.org

Thousands of children throughout America suffer sexual abuse each day at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect and care for them. This has harmful consequences on the physical and emotional development and well-being of children. The police do their job and arrest these criminals, but our laws allow judges to hand down light sentences or probation that allows the perpetrators to re-offend, placing the public at risk. In several states a judge must run for retention in office in the first general election that occurs more than three years after his or her appointment, and every six years thereafter. We can send a strong message in November by voting “NO” to retain these judges.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10)

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