More than 40,000 people signed a Change.org petition this month to impeach a Montana judge who imposed a two-month prison sentence to a man convicted of raping his young daughter.
The man, not named to protect the victim's identity, has pleaded guilty to raping his 12-year-old daughter and was originally recommended for a mandatory minimum 25-year prison sentence, according to state law for child incest cases. But District Judge John McKeon instead handed down a punishment of 60 days in jail and a suspended 30-year prison term – that he won’t have to serve if he completes probation – and required the man to attend a community-based sex offender treatment program, as reported by CNN.
But many people were outraged by the sentencing, especially in the wake of other short sentences for sexual assault cases, such as the six-month jail sentence for Stanford student Brock Turner and his subsequent release after three months.
Mr. McKeon "is just one of many judges who have been caught handing down light sentences to rapists," wrote Madeline Forman in the petition. "60 days in prison with a suspended 30 year sentence does not match the crime and fails to acknowledge the horrors the victim had to endure."
The decision was controversial and, as McKeon has noted, “unpopular,” and it has prompted a reexamination of the balance between incarceration and treatment. As an article from the American Psychological Association describes, policymaking over the years has been “trending toward longer prison sentences” in part due to a “dismal view of treatment programs,” although many psychologists and advocates stress that recidivism rates fall when offenders are given appropriate treatment.
McKeon defended his actions on the basis that serving a long jail sentence wouldn’t help the defendant. In a statement as reported by the Associated Press, he said that the state law allowed for exceptions if psychosexual evaluations find that treatment “affords a better opportunity for rehabilitation of the offender and for the ultimate protection of the victim and society.” He argued the decision is consistent with Montana’s goal for sentencing policies to “provide opportunities for an offender’s self-improvement, rehabilitation and reintegration into a community.”
He also noted pleas from the victim’s mother and grandmother who wrote letters calling the incest a horrible choice and saying that he needs help, not prison. They added that the defendant’s two sons would be devastated "if their Dad is no longer part of their lives."
The convicted man does still have other restrictions despite a short prison sentence. He will be required to have regular contact with a probation officer, he must secure approval by his treatment providers and probation officer before having any contact with the victim or anyone under 18 years of age, he cannot access any pornographic material, and he has only limited access to the Internet.
Although each case of child incest differs, other recent verdicts highlight how unusual this sentence was. In July, a 39-year-old man in Wisconsin was handed a 35-year prison sentence for repeated first-degree sexual assault of a child, according to Oshkosh Northwestern, a USA Today network paper. In West Virginia, a judge held that a father who recorded sex acts involving a 7-year-old might face up to 68 years in prison, as reported by WSAZ news channel.
During the sentencing in McKeon's courtroom, one voice was missing from the pleas, as critics and Deputy Valley county attorney Dylan Jensen pointed out: the 12-year-old victim. Nobody spoke on behalf of the girl during the sentencing hearing, Mr. Jensen said, to which McKeon responded that her family declined to testify.
“Judge McKeon seemed to only listen to those who stood by a man who sexually assaulted his own daughter multiple times,” the Change.org organizers wrote. “From the victim’s mother to his church, they came out in support of [the convicted felon]. The victim only had the justice system on her side, and it failed her.”