As a sex abuse survivor, a Dallas woman interviewed by the Dallas Morning News understands the emotional appeal of harsher penalties for child abusers. She says new get-tough Texas laws promise more than they can deliver because they won’t affect most offenders. “We’re focusing on stranger danger,” she said of the crackdown, which includes 25-year minimum sentences and the death penalty for some child rapists. “That’s not who’s molesting the vast majority of our children.” Federal data say juvenile sex assault victims know their perpetrator a staggering 93 percent of the time. Often it’s a family member or another child. Rarely is it a stranger.
Texas’ push to increase punishment for sex crimes was driven by state officials wanting to send a “no tolerance” message. Although the laws are politically popular, most such crimes are never reported; those that are prosecuted often end in a plea bargain with a relatively light sentence, and about a third of sexual offenses are committed by juveniles not covered by the enhanced penalties. Even when abusers are prosecuted, they rarely get long terms. A Dallas Morning News analysis of sentencing in 13,000 cases of aggravated sexual assault of a child since 1991 found that four of 10 offenders initially received no prison time. When an offender went to prison, less than one in five got 25 years or longer.