Recent cases in Routt County raise questions about the prosecution of individuals who commit sexual offenses against children.
We understand that each case must be handled individually and that the evidence in each case ultimately dictates the outcome. However, when several cases result in light sentences or no prosecution at all, it raises concerns about the community's commitment to dealing with such crimes.
Some recent examples:
Last week, a 45-year-old South Routt man agreed to a deal to serve no more than three years in prison when there was significant evidence indicating he had sex with a teenager. Instead of being convicted of sexual assault, he agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charges of attempted sexual assault and child abuse.
In August, a Steamboat Springs man was sentenced to 90 days in jail and eight years of probation for sexually assaulting a child younger than 14. Again, the sentence was part of a plea agreement reached with prosecutors.
Finally, there was the case last year involving a sheriff's deputy accused of having sex with a teenager he met through a school program. The deputy lost his job, but the District Attorney's Office ultimately decided against pressing charges.
Obviously, we are not privy to the specifics of each case, making it difficult to second-guess decisions in individual cases. Certainly, the District Attorney's Office feels a responsibility to taxpayers not to waste time and money on cases prosecutors are not likely to win. Such issues may have factored into the outcomes of the cases cited above.
Also, the District Attorney's Office is under significant pressure to quickly move more cases through the system. Just last month, Chief Judge Michael O'Hara admonished prosecutors for not hammering out more plea agreements. "You guys can play tough on all these cases if you want, but you can't try them all," O'Hara said.
The judge said too many cases were getting dismissed because the District Attorney's Office wasn't doing enough to hammer out a deal before trial, forcing prosecutors to dismiss charges because of a lack of evidence at trial. It should be noted that O'Hara was speaking to all prosecutors in Craig, and he wasn't talking about sex cases specifically, but his message to the District Attorney's Office throughout the area was clear.
The problem is such an approach can create a perception of a system in which expediency and practicality supercede justice. Our community should expect more, not only from the District Attorney's Office, but also from the entire judicial community, including law enforcement, county commissioners and judges.
If evidence-gathering in sex cases is a problem, law enforcement officials must address and correct it. If financial resources are a problem, commissioners must review their commitment to funding resources for prosecutors. If judges don't like dealing with a heavy docket, perhaps they should find another line of work.
All crimes are heinous, but few more so than sexual crimes against children. We are not under the illusion that our judicial system can stop such crimes. They are, sadly, a reality in our society. However, it is not unreasonable to expect stiff punishment for such crimes, particularly when doing so restricts the ability to re-offend.
Taken individually, perhaps justice was served as best as possible in each of the aforementioned cases. But taken collectively, they send the wrong message about the community's commitment to prosecuting these crimes. It's a message that needs to change.