03 December 2012

Child Abuse Homicide Statutes Unnecessary

In Colorado, child abuse resulting in death has much more severe sentences imposed for comparable burdens of proof as to perpetrator intent than in cases involving strangers, although the sentences imposed are towards the low end for violent crimes of the same statutory felony level classification.

Part of the reason that Colorado enacted these sentences was out of the belief that juries tend to go easy on child abuse defendants and that child abuse cases are hard to prove.

study of child abuse resulting in death prosecutions from neighboring Utah, which does not have an extraordinarily severe sentencing scheme for child abuse resulting in death, empirically rebuts this legislative intuition.
Hilary A. Hewes, M.D., and colleagues from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, examined homicide data from the National Violent Death Reporting System in Utah for all deaths classified as homicides between January 2002 and December 2007 to compare the conviction rate and sentence severity between child abuse homicide offenders and adult homicide offenders. The Utah State Code states that "criminal homicide constitutes child abuse homicide if, under circumstances not amounting to aggravated murder, the actor causes the death of a person younger than 18 years and the death results from child abuse."

The authors identified 373 homicides in Utah during the study period, of which 334 were included in the analysis. Sixty-six of the included cases (19.8 percent) were child homicides, of these, 52 cases (15.6 percent) were considered child abuse homicide according to Utah statutes. Of the 52 cases, 34 were within Utah state jurisdiction and had a suspect identified. Conviction of the suspect occurred in 30 of the 34 cases, for a conviction rate of 88.2 percent. Of 268 adult homicide cases included in the study, 135 cases had a suspect identified. Among these, 112 convictions (83 percent) occurred.

Of the 211 homicide convictions included in the study, the authors found that the 88.2 percent conviction rate for child abuse homicides was similar to the 83 percent conviction rate identified for adult offenders. The authors found that there were no significant differences in the level of felony or severity of sentencing for suspects of child abuse homicide versus adult homicide. Additional analysis showed that suspects of child abuse homicide were most often male, the victim's parent and of white race/ethnicity.
Homicides that are not child abuse homicides are much less likely to result in convictions, but this is entirely a result of police not being able to identify a suspect in cases not involving children.

While there are deep cultural differences between Utah and Colorado, since Utah is more ethnically homogeneous, since Utah is predominantly Mormon in a way that provides a different support network to church members than is found among most non-Mormons, and since Utah has the nation's highest fertility rates for native born non-Hispanic whites in the nation (with the possible exception of other states like Idaho with a large Mormon population) and the lowest average ages of first marriage creating far more families made up of young parents with many children.  Utah is also far more politically conservative than Colorado and hence juries there may be less inclined toward leniency.

But, none of those factors obviously disturb the assumption that if Colorado child abuse causing death statutes provided for similar sentences for child abuse homicides with levels of intent comparable to homicides involving strangers, that Colorado juries would convict known suspects at comparable rates, and that Colorado judges would impose sentences at comparable rates.

The leniency seen in prosecutorial conduct and judicial sentencing in Colorado for child abuse causing death cases only seems lenient relative to the very long sentences of incarceration imposed in Colorado for these offenses by statute, even though the empirical data on sentencing in Colorado clearly establishes that sentencing is much more severe for child abuse causing death cases than it is for comparable cases involving strangers.

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