Sex abuse sentences prompt ire

July 30, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

Editor's note: The names of the mothers interviewed and of the offenders are not being printed to protect the identities of the children.

When her father-in-law was sentenced in April to serve five years in prison for molesting her 8-year-old daughter, authorities assured Tammy that he would serve half his sentence behind bars.

But the Hagerstown woman recently received a letter notifying her that he will be eligible for parole after 15 months.

Jill Ritter, director of the victim witness unit at the Washington County State's Attorney's Office, acknowledged she made a mistake when she advised Tammy and several other victims.

When the state law changed to ensure that violent offenders serve at least half their sentences before being eligible for parole, Ritter incorrectly assumed it applied to those convicted of child sexual abuse.


As it turns out, child sexual abuse is not considered a violent crime.

Tammy said she would like to see the law changed.

She's not alone.

Ginger said she doesn't think the criminal justice system takes the crime seriously.

"We need to protect the rest of the community from these offenders. They just get a slap on the wrist," said the Hagerstown woman.

Ginger's father-in-law was sentenced in February to serve six years for child sexual abuse of Ginger's 10-year-old daughter.

Now, Ginger is preparing to fight his release at a parole hearing next year.

"We need to protect the rest of the community from these offenders," Ginger said.

The man who abused Tammy's daughter will be on supervised probation for five years after his release.

According to court records, he's been diagnosed with pedophilia and himself was abused as a child. The charges led him to retire from a government job.

Sue Hecht, a former state delegate and executive director of the Heartly House women's shelter in Frederick, Md., said she isn't surprised that child sexual abuse not being designated as a crime of violence has become an issue.

Hecht sponsored legislation to make child sexual abuse a crime of violence, but it never got past the House Judiciary Committee.

The Maryland General Assembly did, however, pass legislation earlier this year to increase the maximum sentence for child sexual abuse from 15 years to 25 years. The law goes into effect in October.

Del. Tony O'Donnell, R-Calvert/St. Mary's, said he sponsored the legislation in order to get tough on sex offenders.

But he admitted there's nothing in the law to force judges to hand down the maximum sentence. In addition, offenders rarely serve their entire sentences because of time off for good behavior.

"I don't think we're even close to having truth in sentencing," he said.

The men who molested Tammy's and Ginger's daughters both were considered first-time offenders and did not receive the maximum sentence, which at the time was 15 years.

Despite the tougher sentencing law, Hecht said the state should make child sexual abuse a violent crime.

"Why up the sentence if you're going to drop more than half of it?" she said.

Some victims feel even that won't be enough to stop the cycle of violence against society's most vulnerable.

A 57-year-old Hagerstown man is to be sentenced Aug. 11 after pleading guilty to third-degree sex offense and indecent exposure, according to Washington County Court records.

He was accused of exposing his genitals to his girlfriend's granddaughters, ages 6 and 12, court records said.

Even though the crime he's been convicted of is classified as a violent crime, he probably will serve about five years, prosecutors have told the mother of one of his victims.

"These children will still not be of age when he gets out," the mother said.

The mother believes that all offenders should be required to receive lifelong therapy.

"They prey on the innocent young children. They should be branded somehow," she said.

Department of Public Safety and Corrections spokesman Mark Vernarelli said the department does whatever possible to ensure public safety.

While the system of parole gives the department control over an offender's release, others are mandated to be released early due to prescribed good-time credits, he said.

"We try to do the best we can given the law and the condition of each offender," he said.

The Herald-Mail Articles