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Report criticizes Va. judges on child abuse cases

Only a small percentage of suspected crimes against children are prosecuted in Virginia, and very few of those cases result in meaningful prison sentences, a child advocacy group says in a new report.

The National Association to PROTECT Children sent the report this week to members of two legislative committees that will meet Friday to interview judges who are up for reappointment. The report said three of the seven circuit court judges who will appear before the House and Senate Courts of Justice Committees “show troubling and potentially dangerous patterns of sentencing on crimes against children.”

But the association’s report suggests the problems extend well beyond those judges, in part because of lax sentencing guidelines — including one that treats child sex abusers lighter if the victim is their own child — and the extensive use of plea-bargaining.

“There is no crime more serious than a crime against a child,” the 2012 Report on Virginia Judicial Performance said. “Yet the data here show that preying upon children sexually — or committing other child abuse so serious it results in criminal prosecution— is likely to result in very little, if any, incarceration.”

According to the organization’s data, more than 66,000 suspected incidents of child abuse were reported to social services agencies in the last fiscal year. More than half were accepted, more than 10,000 were investigated, and just over 4,000 those complaints ultimately were labeled “founded.”

Results varied widely. For example, the percentage of referrals accepted ranged from 35 percent in Chesterfield County to 94 percent in Washington County, and the percentage of founded cases of child abuse ranged from 16 percent of those investigated in Chesapeake to 66 percent in Rockingham County.

“We shouldn’t have this kind of disparity and differences in accepted cases,” said Camille Cooper, director of legislative affairs for PROTECT.

There currently is no easy way to determine which reports to social services ultimately are prosecuted. However, a separate set of statistics shows more than 6,100 child abuse charges were filed last year, about two-thirds of them resulting in convictions — mostly though guilty pleas.

“It is the rare case of child abuse — including sexual abuse — that makes it to a criminal trial,” the report said.

The report also examined the records of the judges up for reappointment. Two of the judges heard only nine child abuse cases in a 5½-year period, according to the report, and a third judge heard 18. Of the seven judges’ 188 child abuse cases over that period, only eight were tried by jury. Forty-two of those cases resulted in no jail time, and an additional 26 resulted in sentences of less than 1 year.

The report singled out the sentencing practices of Judges Isaac St. Clair Freeman of Smyth County, Junius P. Fulton III of Norfolk and William R. O’Brien of Virginia Beach. It said the three imposed effective sentences of no time behind bars for defendants convicted of indecent liberties with a minor, and Fulton and Freeman gave no jail time in cases of aggravated sexual battery of a victim under 13 and aggravated sexual battery of an incapacitated person.

None of the three judges immediately returned telephone messages seeking comment.

Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax and chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, said PROTECT also raised concerns about some judges in testimony before the panel last year.

“There were a couple of red flags, we asked the judges about it and they had a proper explanation,” Albo said.

Cooper said this is the first year the organization has prepared a written report for lawmakers to consider during the judicial appointment process. She said the report was sent to legislators and the judges, who were told several weeks ago how to access the data on the organization’s website. The judges were asked to share any concerns about the data, but none did, Cooper said.

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