If proposed changes in the minimum-mandatory child abuse sentencing laws are adopted, then Utahns will be sending this disturbing invitation: "Come to Utah. We have the greatest number of children. And if you abuse them, you may not have to go to prison," child advocate Delpha Baird warned Thursday.
Baird's comment showed the emotionalism surrounding the child sexual abuse issue that surfaced during an intense two-hour debate before the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.The commission is considering proposals to alter current minimum-mandatory laws, giving judges and members of the prison's Board of Pardons discretion to place non-incest abusers on probation or reduce sentences to under five years.
Proponents of the change say the exception would apply to only a few abusers who met rigid requirements. Pedophiles would not qualify. Offenders would have to acknowledge their guilt and show receptivity to treatment.
Current law, passed in 1983, imposes a minimum five-year prison term upon those found guilty of sexually abusing a child.
Representing the Utah Chapter for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Baird scolded the commission for even considering "diluting" child abuse statutes.
"The problem is not with the law, it is with the way we are administering that law," said Baird. "Children are being betrayed by the judiciary."
She suggested strengthening current law by:
-Tightening the law so fewer are let off.
-Deleting or tightening the incest exception that permitted Allan B. Hadfield, Lehi, to be placed on probation after being found guilty of abusing his children.
-Insisting that prosecutors follow guidelines, stopping unnecessary plea bargaining.
"We would like every perpetrator to go to prison," said Baird. "If more prisons are needed to hold them, we'll work to lobby the legislature for more money."
Brent Ward, U.S. attorney for Utah, was equally caustic in his criticism of the proposals to revise the minimum-mandatory statutes that he helped draft five years ago.
Calling child abuse an "utterly heinous crime," Ward said, "I can't conceive of a situation where a child is raped that the penalty ought to be less than five years (in prison)."
By the time most molesters are caught, they have abused more than 60 children, said Ward. Children have the right to be protected. Victims need the reassurance that their perpetrators will be punished and kept off the streets for at least five, 10 or 15 years.
"There's not a problem with the law, but with some prosecutors and judges not enforcing it. . . . Unless we can find that the law is not working, it shouldn't be tampered with," said Ward.
Reading statistics showing an increase in reported incidents of abuse since the minimum-mandatory laws passed, Ward said strict sentencing tells children they will be taken seriously and perpetrators will be punished.
Commission members asked Ward if it isn't sometimes more merciful to plea bargain a case instead of putting a child through the trauma of a "brutal trial." Ward replied it is more traumatic for a child to think "society doesn't care by plea bargaining."
However, Ward acknowledged that in some cases - if there are problems with evidence - it may be appropriate to plea bargain a case.
Supporting Baird's recommendations, Ward urged the commission to suggest uniform guidelines for prosecutors to avoid disparity in sentencing.
The commission will study the recommendations further and decide to endorse or reject the proposals at a Jan. 19 meeting.