IT’S NOT OFTEN that rapists get brought before the court of law to face justice for their crimes. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), 97 out of every 100 rapists will never even spend a single day in jail. So when, against the odds, a rapist is prosecuted and found guilty, but then given a slap on the wrist by the judge against the recommendation of the prosecution, it somehow feels worse than the rapist never being prosecuted at all.
This is exactly what happened in Montana this past summer. CNN reports on the case in detail, but to summarize, a man (whose name has been withheld to protect the privacy of his victim) plead guilty to a felony count of incest for repeatedly raping his 12-year-old daughter. While the deal the defendant made with the prosecution dropped three other felony counts in exchange for serving 25 years in prison, District Judge John McKeon ignored the terms of that deal and instead imposed a 60-day jail sentence, probation, and a 30-year suspended term to be dismissed upon successful completion of said probation. The terms of that probation include completing a community-based sex offender treatment program and having no unsupervised contact with minors. Including time served, the man will spend, at most, 43 days in jail for his crime.
Judge McKeon cited a desire to rehabilitate the man as his motivation for the sentence. In his statement defending his decision last week, the judge wrote that treatment, rather than jail time, would provide a “better opportunity for rehabilitation,” and that the law provides judges with discretion to circumvent mandatory sentencing laws when doing so would, in the judges’ eyes, “encourage and provide opportunities for an offender’s self-improvement, rehabilitation and reintegration back into a community.”
Judge McKeon was not the only person willing to give the man a second chance. The victim’s mother wrote on behalf of her husband:
He has two sons that still love him and need their father in their lives, even with very understandable restrictions. I would like to see my children have an opportunity to heal the relationship with their father. Please give him the opportunity to work on fixing the relationships he destroyed. He is not a monster, just a man that really screwed up and has been paying in many ways.
The victim’s maternal grandmother echoed her daughter’s sentiment, claiming that the couple’s two sons would be “devastated” without the presence of their father in their lives.
Judge McKeon’s sentencing decision has caused public outrage and controversy, sparking a petition on Change.org calling for his immediate impeachment. At the time of this writing, the petition has reached more than 50,000 signatures. “It is time to start punishing the judges who let these monsters walk our streets,” the petition states, alluding to other recent controversial decisions granting short or negligible jail sentences to offenders convicted of sex-related crimes. One of the most infuriating instances of this lenient sentencing is the highly-publicized case of Brock Turner, who received a six-month county jail sentence from Judge Aaron Persky after being convicted of assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on Stanford University’s campus. Statements given by Turner’s family and friends all extolled his virtues as an upstanding young man and pleaded with the judge to allow Turner a chance for rehabilitation instead of jail time.
Successful rehabilitation of sex offenders is a controversial subject. Proponents of sex-offender treatment programs, like sex offender treatment specialist Michael Sullivan, who was cited by Judge McKeon in his defense, claim that intensive therapy and treatment can allow for the successful reintegration of offenders back into the community. Opponents of rehabilitation, on the other hand, claim that the nature of sexual offenses means that sex offenders are inherently unable to be rehabilitated, and that outcomes show that, even with therapy and treatment, many sex offenders will still recidivate upon release. In fact, a 2015 study in the journal Sex Abuse recorded that, out of a sample of 110 adult men incarcerated for sex-related crimes, 40% of subjects recidivated some way within 6 years of their release, with 6% of them recidivating sexually. The sample included offenders who were completing a prison-based sexual offense treatment program during the periods of their incarceration. With or without treatment, sexual offenders released back into the population often find themselves isolated and shunned by the communities in which they live, and the extent to which their isolation contributes to their risk of recidivism is another subject of intense debate.
The success of sex offender rehabilitation programs aside, what is clear is that the judge’s recommendation of community-based rehabilitation is definitely not in the best interest of the victim, nor in the best interests of the other children in the family. Any psychologist worth her degree will say that the victim’s ability to emotionally and psychologically heal will be severely impacted in the most negative of ways if she has contact with her rapist at such an early stage in the recovery process, even if it is supervised by other adults. Her two brothers, both also children, will surely be negatively impacted by continued contact with their father, as they struggle to process their sister’s trauma and their renegotiated family structure. The statements provided by the mother and grandmother, though, make it clear that their interests lie in keeping the offender out of jail and preserving their family unit, at the expense of ensuring the well-being, safety, and recovery of the 12-year-old victim and her two brothers.
While the outcome of this case is infuriating, depressing, and mind-boggling, one thing it’s not is surprising. Society has never prioritized the victims of sexual crimes over their perpetrators. Expecting it to this time, just because the victim was a young, powerless girl betrayed by the very person most charged with protecting her, was an exercise in wishful thinking.
Click here to view and sign the petition to impeach District Judge John McKeon.