Wendy Murphy: Vermont tragedy spotlights need for harsher sex offender laws
The body of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett was recently found in a shallow grave near the Vermont home of Michael Jacques. Jacques is suspected of killing the child after luring her to his house in connection with a reported “sex ring” involving young girls.
Jacques was a convicted sex offender who kidnapped and brutally raped a teenager for four hours in 1992. Jacques got out of prison in 1997, and was under the supervision of Vermont probation officials until September 2006.
Here’s the real shocker – it was during the time that he was being “supervised” by probation that Jacques got young girls involved in a “sex ring” and reportedly started raping a 9-year-old child, a crime he continued for five years.
Jacques could have been behind bars rather than raping kids and setting up sex rings, but he was released early by a judge who has yet to explain herself.
Like a handful of states including Massachusetts, Vermont needs to beef up its laws to provide long mandatory prison sentences. A recent change in Vermont created a presumption that five years behind bars should be the mandatory minimum, but five years is woefully inadequate, and judges can ignore the minimum in favor of no prison time at all – as long as they put their reasons in writing.
Rather than fighting for kids, too many lawmakers (mostly Democrats) are outspoken opponents of mandatory punishments. They favor treatment instead. Vermont claims to have the “best” treatment program in the world.
That would be the same treatment program that Michael Jacques “successfully” completed during the time he was raping a 9-year-old child.
It’s time for Vermont to accept what other states have known for a long time: Even the “best” treatment programs don’t work, and Michael Jacques is Exhibit 1 in the vast pile of proof that shows incarceration is the only legitimate option for most predators. On average, sex offenders abuse between 40 and 117 victims during their lifetime. Prison protects kids because there are no 5-year-olds behind bars.
Sex offenders know which states go easy on them, which is why they move to places like Vermont. They know they won’t likely get caught, and even if they do – they’re more likely to get shipped off to a spa than a jail cell.
This is not to say all offenders should be treated exactly alike. And it’s true that some offenders can manage their behavior – but most either can’t or don’t want to stop.
Which is why it’s important to have mandatory sentences. Unlike non-violent drug crimes where long prison terms are often ineffectual because dealers are fungible and supply and demand guarantees perpetuation of the crime, tough and certain punishments for child predators work well to deter sexual abuse. Offenders are afraid of going to prison – which is why they work so hard to terrorize their victims into silence. But they have no fear in states like Vermont and Massachusetts because even if they get caught, incarceration is the rare exception to the rule.
So the question for lawmakers in states like Vermont is this: why are you so willing to gamble with children’s lives? Even socialists who think incarcerating people is an act of fascism can understand that the murder of a child is a far worse loss of liberty than the imprisonment of a rapist.
Continuing to expose children to danger in the name of protecting the rights of the accused ensures that more kids will suffer. Brooke Bennett isn’t here to rise up in protest over how the legal system failed her, but lots of good people are outraged and are speaking for her.
Their warning to public officials is simple: “Give us safe kids and a little bit of fascism or get ready for dead kids and a whole lot of vigilantism.”
Wendy Murphy is a leading victims rights advocate and nationally recognized television legal analyst. She is an adjunct professor at New England School of Law and radio talk show host. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org