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Rape cases rarely bring justice

by Jim Longworth

Last week a grieving mother sat in a Billings Montana courtroom as Judge Todd Baugh justified his ruling that her daughter’s “rapist” would serve only one month in jail. The “assailant” was a male teacher, and three years after his encounter with young Cherize Morales, the 17 year old girl killed herself. Judge Baugh commented that at the time of the rape, the victim was “older than her chronological age”, and was “in control of the situation”. The Judge’s seemingly insensitive remarks spurred  public outrage, but we’ll come back to that later.

There are two larger issues to be considered stemming from this case. One is the inconsistency in sentencing laws from state to state, and the other is whether consensual sex should be considered a felony.

There are some 90,000 rapes committed in the United States each year, and 99% of those are committed by men. But according to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), only 3 out of every 100 rapists receive any jail time. With that courtroom track record, it’s no wonder that 54% of rapes go unreported. Still, we sometimes hear of a rapist going to prison for 20 or 30 years, so I wondered just how much latitude judges had in adjudicating such cases.

On its website, The American Prosecutors Research Institute (APRI) offers a detailed report of the various codifications and permutations relating to rape cases, as they exist in each state. After spending some time studying their data, I attempted to compile a list of sentencing for the same kind of rape, so as to draw a fair comparison of which states were more lenient on rapists, and which were more strict.

As expected, some states have more definitive and realistic guidelines for sentencing rapists than do others. In California, for example, a judge can send an assailant to prison for 3, 6, or 8 years. In new Jersey, it’s 5 to 10 years. And in Washington state, the law allows for sentencing of “up to 10 years” for a standard rape.

Other states start with a minimum sentence, but then allow judges a lot of leeway in setting his own maximum. Nebraska Judges can sentence a rapist from 3 to 50 years. In Virginia it’s 5 years to life, and in Idaho it’s one year to life. Louisiana and Iowa say the prison sentence for rape can be “up to 25 years”, while Minnesota judges can give a rapist anywhere from 90 months to 25 years. And Mississippi just stipulates “up to life”.

Alaska and Alabama are the most lenient states on rapists, where the sentence must be “not more than one year”. Illinois allows for sentencing of 6 to 30 years, while in Arkansas it’s 5 to 20. New York sets the range at 5 to 25, Rhode Island at 3 to 15, and Tennessee allows for a sentence of 8 to 12 years.

The only state for which APRI couldn’t report exact, standardized sentencing guidelines was North Carolina. Instead prosecutors simply noted that sentencing in our state is “based on mitigating circumstances and prior record”.

As was noted earlier, almost all reported rapes are committed by men, but lately, there have been a rash of cases involving women rapists, and most of those involve female teachers in their 20’s having sex with their 16 to 17 year old male students.

Last week, for instance, a California teacher was charged with having sex with five male students, and she faces 13 years in prison. Not far away in Redlands, another lady teacher just pled guilty to having sex with three under age boys, and she faces one year in prison and 5 years probation. In Dallas, a 24 year old female teacher has just been arrested for having sex with a 17 year old male student. And last week in New Jersey a 22 year old teacher was arrested for having sex with her 15 year old male student, and is being charged with rape and child endangerment.

In her August 30 column, the Washington Post’s Betsy Karasik made a case for decriminalizing sex between teachers and high school age students in which the sex is consensual. And while she didn’t defend the way Judge Baugh expressed himself, Karasik largely agrees with his sentiment, that many older students do have control of the situation. That Cherize Morales took her own life at age 17 is tragic, and indicative that she lacked the emotional maturity to deal with what she agreed to let happen three years earlier. But in such cases, teachers should not serve hard time in prison for consensual sex. They should, however be fired and never allowed to teach again.

Ironically, the inconsistencies in sentencing laws, and the latitude given Judges, can result in grossly minimum sentences for forcible rapes, and excessively harsh sentences for statutory, consensual rapes. Either way, justice is seldom served, and that’s why guidelines need to be clearer and more consistent. Our courts need to stop adding pain and suffering to the pain and suffering.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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