Editorial: After the Tragedy; Reviewing Vt. Sex-Crime Reforms

Often the only solace that can be found in an unspeakable tragedy comes when its very occurrence somehow lessens the chances that it will be repeated. A case in point is the kidnapping, rape and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett in 2008. The extreme moral depravity of the crime, to which the victim’s uncle Michael Jacques recently pleaded guilty, was such that it shocked the state and galvanized the Legislature to rapidly enact a package of reforms overhauling nearly every aspect of Vermont’s response to sex crimes. Has Vermont become a safer place as a result? Staff writer Mark Davis explored this question in an article Sunday, and the answer, five years after the horrific murder, seems to be a qualified “yes,” although perhaps not exactly by the means intended.

Among the major reforms enacted were several that aimed to make it easier to prosecute sex crimes and to toughen penalties for those convicted. Others sought to more closely monitor convicted sex offenders, of which Jacques was one, and to more closely coordinate responses across government agencies.

The track record is mixed. For example, special units consisting of investigators, victim advocates and prosecutors have been set up in each county to investigate sex crimes and are being credited with bringing a higher degree of professionalism to the task. At the same time, they have been plagued by high turnover rates and organizational problems, as Davis reported. There’s also no evidence yet that conviction rates have trended upward or that more lengthy sentences have resulted, although five years is not considered long enough to judge these things accurately.

Similarly, the law created a new criminal offense, aggravated sex assault against a child, which carries a mandatory 25-year sentence. It also bars defense lawyers from taking pre-trial depositions from juvenile victims of sex assaults. These reforms seem to have cut both ways.

Prosecutors say the mandatory 25-year sentence has provided them with a hammer with which to fashion plea bargains that carry significant prison time when victims are reluctant to testify. The other side of the coin is that defense lawyers say a heavy mandatory minimum may deter defendants from entering into plea bargains and the ban on deposing young victims deprives both the prosecution and defense of an important way to assess the strength of a criminal case. If the victim is unable to make it through a rigorous deposition, the argument runs, then how well will her testimony hold up at trial?

This is perhaps just more evidence that legislation is a blunt instrument when it comes to addressing complicated problems, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. The irony in this case, as Davis pointed out, is that provisions in the law that received less attention at the time it was passed may have proved most effective. These include increased training for teachers and state workers and better communication among state agencies that deal with sex offenders. Sarah Kenney, associate director of public policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, highlighted just these aspects in an interview. “Folks really acknowledged the reality of sexual violence in our communities, which is not generally the stranger in the bushes we think we need to protect ourselves from; it’s a family member, a party known to the victim. The response of the Legislature and our community to Brooke’s murder really acknowledged that reality, and I think it has been making a difference.” And perhaps that’s the best one can hope for in the circumstances.