Politics & Policy

Freed on Faith

Why is Brooke Bennett dead?

Twelve-year old Brooke Bennett was buried in Randolph, Vt., earlier this week. She was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered. Federal authorities have charged her uncle, Michael Jacques, in connection with the events.

Jacques has previously been convicted of rape — in the earlier case, Jacques handcuffed his victim, gagged her, and put a rope around her neck before spending four hours violating her. But the victim was 18, and survived, making Jacques neither a pedophile nor a murderer.

#ad#He was sentenced to six years and released after four.

The original sentence mandated that Jacques remain on probation for 14 years, until 2013, but Jacques got an early release from that one, too. He and his probation officer assured the court that he was no longer a threat to society because he had been through treatment and changed. They found a judge willing to overrule prosecutors who disagreed: Judge Amy Davenport said, “As defendant and his probation officer point out, the rehabilitative function of probation has been successfully accomplished in his case.”

In other words, experts and public officials — claiming to have a special knowledge of these things — developed a method of treatment for sex offenders. They administered this treatment and declared it successful in Jacques’s case. Not quite four years later, Brooke Bennett was dead.

One would hope that those responsible would have the decency to at least say they are sorry. Or even concede that perhaps confinement is the way to go, that it’s not worth risking a 12-year-old’s life.

But according to one news report, “Corrections officials maintain they have confidence in the program despite the apparent failure in the Jacques case.”

And, of course, we also hear that people who are calling for stricter sentencing are wrong and uniformed and don’t think quite subtly enough. One prominent Vermont lawmaker has intoned against looking “for simple fixes to solve really complex and troubling changes in our society.” Sophisticated thinkers and legislators can, of course, see the wisdom of four-year sentences for crimes like violent, four-hour rapes of 18-year-olds. Only a rube would believe otherwise.

Of course, if the rubes’ policies had been the law, Brooke Bennett would still be alive.

But resist this obvious fact. As one of Vermont’s candidates for governor explains:

When we looked at the question of long, mandatory sentences we found the result was less safe communities. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but offenders are not as likely to plea. They won’t admit to the crime. These crimes are hard to prove because there are rarely any witnesses. The end result is that these criminals go free. They are not on the sex offender registry.

Under this thinking, the best course of action is to catch a criminal, release him in a very short period of time, and watch him via the sex-offender registry. This is precisely the system that failed in the Jacques case.

Of course, no government failure — even one this egregious — would be complete without some bureaucrat or legislator claiming that it never would have happened if we hadn’t been so woefully underfunded. The answer, one Vermont prosecutor said, is special investigative units. “There are no investigators, detectives, to staff those units,” he said, “because money was not available.”

One hardly knows where to begin. But here is a thought. If the prosecutors need more money, cancel all those treatment programs and use whatever savings are realized to staff those units. Then get some new prosecutors, new probation officers, and, especially, new judges.

A day or two ago, I was talking about this case with a man I know only slightly. He was plainly agitated, as a lot of people are and should be. Especially when they listen to what the authorities and elites are saying.

“You know,” he said softly but firmly, “I’ve got daughters and I hate to think what I’d be capable of if what happened to that girl happened to one of them.”

For government to be legitimate, it must administer justice capably. We surrender our desire for retribution — which is not a character flaw but an essential human urge — to the authorities as a kind of trust. If they violate it, arrogantly and repeatedly, we will eventually reclaim it.

Who is to say that the world would not be better off if the brother or father of Michael Jacques’s first victim hadn’t done what the state should have? The charges Jacques faces, after all, can result in the death penalty. But a 12-year-old girl is already, tragically and unnecessarily, dead. 

Geoffrey Norman is editor of vermonttiger.com.

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