Analysis: Most sex crime convictions lead to prison sentences
In August, Bannock County District Judge Rick Carnaroli sentenced a Rigby man accused of attempting to entice children online for sex to 10 years of probation, drawing sharp rebuke online.
The defendant, 39-year-old Russell Tolbert, was arrested in January for contacting a 15-year-old girl on Facebook and making plans to meet her for sex. Tolbert learned at the arranged meeting that the 15-year-old was actually a team of Chubbuck Police Department detectives.
Tolbert’s charge was reduced to child injury, a charge that acts as a common compromise in sex abuse cases and allows defendants to avoid having to register as a sex offender.
Many online comments about the article in the Idaho State Journal, which covered the sentencing, were vicious.
“Oh, but he attended treatment at an LDS church so he’s fixed now... Is this really what society has come to?,” one comment read. “I don’t accept this garbage, at all. He’s had his ‘wake up call.’ This makes me physically sick!”
Further comments expressed disbelief and frustration that a person charged with a sex crime would be released after they were caught.
The comments escalated, prompting an Idaho State Police investigation after someone posted a threat with a picture of a gun. It was unclear whether the threat was against Tolbert or Carnaroli.
Check the comments section of any news outlet’s Facebook posts about sex crimes, and there will be comments of outrage at the defendant and the justice system, as well as the occasional threat or demand for an execution. The public perception as evidenced on social media is that sentences for sex offenders are not harsh enough.
The Post Register looked at 42 cases in eastern Idaho from the last 15 months involving sex crimes ranging from possession of child pornography to lewd conduct with a minor under 16 to see what a typical sentence for sex crimes looked like.
Probation and retained jurisdiction were a particular concern among those who commented who see such sentences as a slap on the wrist. The unscientific sample shows about one-third of defendants were given probation or retained jurisdiction as part of their sentence.
In 27 cases the defendants were sentenced to prison time. Rider programs, a sentence in which a defendant receives treatment and therapy for a year before being re-evaluated by a judge, were given twice as often as probation.
District Judge Joel Tingey said he typically uses retained jurisdiction in cases where he thinks the defendant can be safely monitored and won’t pose a risk. When a defendant completes a rider program, a judge decides if they should serve the rest of their sentence.
“The thing about a rider program is it’s not a guarantee of probation,” Tingey said. “It’s just a chance to improve yourself.”
District Judge Dane Watkins Jr. said a rider program can serve as a middle ground to evaluate whether a defendant can be safely released into the community.
“It gives the court more time and even the defendant more time to submit to programming,” Watkins said.
All five cases that resulted in a probation sentence were reduced from their original charge to a lesser charge that did not require defendants to register as a sex offender. Four of those were reduced to felony injury of a child and one was reduced to misdemeanor battery.
Regardless of whether the sentence came with probation or a rider program, all but one sentence had an indefinite period that was longer than the definite sentence defendants are required to serve as a minimum.
In a January interview, District Judge Bruce Pickett said a longer indefinite sentence allows the judge and parole board to evaluate whether a defendant is responding to treatment and ready for release.
The average sex abuse case among those examined by the Post Register has an average minimum sentence of four years and an average maximum sentence of 17 years.
The cases make for apples and oranges comparisons, as many of the cases, including those with charges of possession of child pornography or injury of a child, are limited to a maximum sentence of 10 years. Rape of a child, usually charged as lewd conduct with a minor under 16, is punishable with up to a life sentence.
“I don’t know if there is one sentence for those types of crimes because they’re all across the board,” Tingey said.
District Judge Gregory Moeller said he does not use social media, and said the public doesn’t see much of the information judges use to determine a sentence. Presentence investigation reports and psychosexual evaluations are protected by law due to the private nature of the information.
On Sept. 11, Moeller cited a psychosexual evaluation when sentencing 20-year-old William Thompson to prison for groping a minor despite recommendations from the prosecution and defense for a rider program.
“It’s sometimes difficult for a story or television report to capture the breadth of issues in some cases,” Moeller said. “It’s easy to second-guess a judge when you haven’t read the literally hundreds of pages of evidence.”