The Warren Jeffs trialbegins today, bringing me the occasion to say something that I don’t often get to say: let’s go Texas! Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is being tried on two charges of sexual assault on a child. He faces a maximum sentence of 119 years if convicted. 119 years! And that’s not to mention that Texas succeeded in extraditing Jeffs after two years of fighting following the 2007 overturning of his Utah conviction.
Texas is one of a handful of states that since the Jessica Lunsford case has articulated a toughened stance on sexual assault against children.The Jessica Lunsford Act proposed a 25 year minimum sentence for sexually violent offenses against children under the age of 14. Jessica’s Law went to Texas in 2007, bringing with it the death penalty or life without parole for “super” aggravated assault against a child. Opponents of the Act criticize its method for labeling sex offenders and claim that the civil rights of convicted persons are hindered. But the concerns that hung over and eventually overruled Texas’s iteration of Jessica’s Law were about its mandatory minimum punishments and the inclusion of a capital felony.
Why does Texas need our cheerleading? Because historically these long sentences are misleading. The US DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 1995 that the average time served for sexual assault (among released felons) was 35 months. Granted, the average sentence was only twice that, but the fact remains that convictions alone are not enough. Suffice to say that the indictment, as well, is only a baby step towards justice. So Texas, and this issue, need our support.
Coverage on the assault of an eleven year old Texas girl by 19 men only further illustrates that no amount of political maneuvering can make up for real, serious attention to justice for assault victims. This includes work to advocate for victims and educate communities. “Them boys didn’t rape her,” Angie Woods told the Houston Chronicle in April. “She wanted this to happen.” (NY Daily News, July 6, 2011) It is not just tragic but also dangerous that people believe an eleven year old retains agency in a situation involving 19 men over the age of consent.
Long sentences give the illusion of a hardline stance. To what end? In the above case there is no mention of the sentences that the 19 accused could face. Is this a problem of the justice system, the media picking and choosing what its audience wants to hear (the racial implications of the gang rape have received ample coverage in the articles linked above) or both?
Texas, you’ve got some work to do. And I’m rooting for you. It’s all I can do to keep from slipping into a horror-driven depression.
You can find out more about sexual assault prevention and legislation here.