When a Racine, Wi., woman was sentenced to nine months in jail for killing her baby, there was outrage, says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Sandra Joncas, then 42, stabbed her daughter to death minutes after giving birth in her bathroom. A sentencing report recommended a 30-year prison term. The judge, citing evidence of her “severe mental disorder,” chose jail. For mothers convicted in the deaths of newborns, that sentence is light but not rare. Heavy sentences–up to life in prison–also are common. There is virtually nothing in between. No official statistics are kept on what is known as neonaticide, the killing of a baby within 24 hours of birth. In the past 10 years, at least 13 Wisconsin women have been convicted in such cases.
Of those 13, Joncas is among seven women who got no prison time. In the other six cases, the prison terms were long. This month, Jennifer Wery of Sheboygan was sentenced to life in prison. Among the other five mothers sent to prison, the average sentence was 21 years. The punishment depends partly on whether the judge identifies more with the helplessness of the child or the tragic circumstances of the mother. “The way we respond to these cases says at least as much about us as a society as it does about the heinousness of the crime,” said DePaul University law professor Michelle Oberman, co-author of “Mothers Who Kill Their Children.”