May 03, 2019

Shane Piche admitted to raping a 14-year-old girl who rode the school bus he drove. Michael Wysolovski admitted to keeping a teenage girl in sexual captivity for more than a year. Last Thursday, two separate judges in two separate states ruled neither would be going to prison.

The sentences prompted outrage among sexual assault survivors and advocates alike, who say such light sentences can have dangerous consequences: re-traumatizing survivors, deterring future victims from reporting and failing to dissuade predators.

"For most survivors the impact of the crime feels like a life sentence. So why does the perpetrator spend not one day in jail?" asked Michael Dolce, an attorney who leads the sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and domestic abuse team at the law firm Cohen & Milstein. "Where is the justice in that?

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Dolce said such sentences also have a "chilling" affect on reporting.

"The next survivor will see what she went through, facing the perpetrator, having to testify in the same room, having to look at that guy, point out that guy, share the details of what happened in front of a jury of strangers — go through all of that and then get this type of an outcome," Dolce said. "The next survivor sees that and then says, 'Why would I do that?'" 

Dolce says the wide discretion judges exercise in sex crimes show many don't understand what it's like to be a victim of such an offense.

"One of the reasons we have a problem with appreciating the impact is that unlike a shooting victim, unlike a drunk driving victim, these victims don't roll into court with visible injuries," Dolce said. "They're not in a wheelchair or a cast. What they've experienced is an injury to the psyche, not something you can see on an X-ray or an MRI. ... The result is that a victim struggles to communicate the lifelong emotional impact of the crime, and as a society we don't like to talk about this stuff. We look away from the worst of it."

Dolce says many people think once a victim escapes the clutches of their perpetrator, they move on. But these traumas, he said, have lifelong repercussions. And when a court suggests a victim's pain is inconsequential, trial outcomes do, too.

"Our criminal justice system has to recognize that the sense of justice or injustice at the end of a prosecution can ... impact a survivor who is looking for validation and re-empowerment," Dolce said. "It certainly doesn't re-empower them when their perpetrator walks free."

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