The tough-on-sex-crimes legislation that demands long, mandatory minimum prison sentences for offenders might be having unintended consequences for victims.
With fewer people pleading guilty, more victims might have to testify at trial.
Anyone accused of committing several types of sexual assault after July 1, 2006, faces mandatory minimum sentences with no possibility of parole.
For example, convictions for rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery and aggravated child molestation require a sentence of 25 years to life. If the convicted sex offender is released from prison, he must spend the rest of his life on probation and on the sexual offender registry.
For a conviction of enticing a child for indecent purposes, the mandatory minimum sentence is 10 years.
"When your back is up against the wall and you're looking at going to prison for a long time ... more people are going to roll the dice" and go to trial, said attorney Scott Connell, who prosecuted criminal cases for 51/2 years before entering private practice nearly six years ago.
Mandatory minimum sentences take away any incentive for a defendant to plead guilty, Augusta Judicial Circuit public defender Sam B. Sibley Jr. said. A drop in guilty pleas also adds to the backlog of pending cases, Mr. Connell said.
In the first 10 months of 2006, 52 percent of sexual assault cases were closed. So far this year, only 34 percent have been closed.
That means more victims have to testify, said attorney Willie Saunders, who is in private practice now after eight years in the prosecutor's office.
"It's rough enough to put an adult on the stand in front of strangers to talk about unwanted and illegal sexual acts," Mr. Saunders said. "It's even worse when it's a child."
This month in Richmond County Superior Court, two sisters ages 6 and 7 had to face cross-examination in Mitchell Holmes' child molestation trial.
Though the jury had watched a videotaped questioning of each girl that was conducted by a trained counselor, the law since 2004 requires victims to be made available for cross-examination.
Mr. Homes, 56, was convicted.
District Attorney Ashley Wright said the numbers aren't available yet to make a definitive analysis of the sexual offense cases. It's logical to think that fewer people are pleading guilty, she said.
Sexual assault crimes have always been difficult for people to admit to, Ms. Wright said. Before a judge will accept a guilty plea, there must be an admission of guilt.
It's tough for victims to testify, but it can also empower them to confront their abusers, Ms. Wright said.
The General Assembly increased the penalties for sex crimes in 2006 on the heels of the Jessica Lunsford case. Registered sex offender John Couey, who was captured in Augusta, was convicted of raping and murdering the 9-year-old Florida girl. He was sentenced to death last year.
Georgia lawmakers set mandatory minimum prison sentences for all sex crimes except those involving consenting teenagers who are close in age.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
52 - Percent of cases closed in the first 10 months of 2006
34 - Percent of cases closed in the first 10 months of 2008
According to Richmond County Superior Court Clerk's records of sexual assault crimes:
January to Oct. 20, 2006: 54 of 112 cases were still open.
January to Oct. 20, 2008: 65 of 99 cases are still open.
Source: Richmond County Superior Court Clerk records