The investigation into Jeffrey Epstein's 2008 plea deal raises concerns about how perpetrators are held accountable. But incremental change since that time suggests progress on prosecution of sex crimes and fairness for victims.
In 2008, multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein went to jail for 13 months after pleading guilty to state child sex crime charges.
He had struck a plea deal with prosecutors, allowing him to avoid potential federal charges of sexually molesting and trafficking a network of girls at his Palm Beach, Fla., mansion and elsewhere. Such a case, if proved, could have led to life in prison, the Miami Herald reported last week.
The investigative series lays out how Mr. Epstein’s connections appear to have contributed to a lenient sentence. It has prompted calls for a Department of Justice investigation, as well as scrutiny of Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who oversaw the plea deal as the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida at the time.
Another landmark in the #MeToo era, it raises the question of how far society has come in the effort to hold perpetrators of sex crimes accountable – and to restore to victims the sense of worthiness often stolen from them twice, once by the victimizer and again by inadequate systems of justice.
“This is the only crime that I’m aware of where routinely the victim is put on trial,” accused of making up stories to get money, for instance, or of consenting when barely a teenager, says Michael Dolce, a survivor of childhood sexual assault and a Florida-based lawyer who works on such cases at Cohen Milstein.
A number of civil cases against Epstein have been settled. And this week, a legal dispute between Epstein and one of the lawyers representing some of his accusers was also settled, closing the door to an anticipated opportunity for them to testify. But they haven’t given up hope for more criminal charges because a case is pending against the US government that could void the plea deal. They say the deal was kept secret from victims in violation of a federal law requiring crime victims to be kept informed.
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Many cases don’t get as far as a plea deal. Young people who have been sexually abused or trafficked are often reluctant to talk, either out of shame or fear of being criminally charged. They are sometimes judged harshly for any involvement in risky behavior, such as the use of alcohol or drugs.
“It’s kind of a powerlessness…. Some people may be sympathetic towards them, but many parts of the system don't really see them as worth worrying about,” says Linda Williams, director of Wellesley College’s Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative in Massachusetts.
She led a study of 500 child sexual abuse cases referred for state-level prosecution over five years. Only 20 percent were prosecuted, and many of those ended up being dismissed, she says. (Most were not trafficking cases.)
Overall, the criminal justice system has improved in recent years as there’s been “more of a focus on making sure there is not a prejudice against female victims,” Jiménez says.
Better-informed juries have also emerged as survivors of sexual assault have stepped forward and partnered with the media to tell their stories, Mr. Dolce says: “People seem to understand better why delayed reporting occurs, what the impact is of sex crimes … and how sex criminals mislead people into believing that they're safe when they’re not.”
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