Recently, an 18-year-old man was convicted of sexually assaulting a six-year-old boy. Terrible story, surely, but one that is unfortunately not particularly unusual. That is, until you hear that the perpetrator has a mental disability. And that he received a 100 year sentence.
Attorneys and advocates are questioning why an 18-year-old East Texan with profound mental disabilities was sentenced to 100 years in prison in a child sex abuse case.
They say the case of Aaron Hart was mishandled from start to finish and raises questions over how to deal with the mentally disabled when they encounter the criminal justice system.
After a neighbor found Hart fondling her 6-year-old stepson in September, the East Texas teenager pleaded guilty to five counts, The Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday.
Hart has an IQ of 47 and was diagnosed as mentally disabled as a child. He never learned to read or write and speaks unsteadily. Despite being a target of bullies, he was courteous, well-behaved and earned money by doing chores for neighbors, supporters said. His parents say he’d never acted out sexually.
“He couldn’t understand the seriousness of what he did,” said his father, Robert Hart. “I never dreamed they would think about sending him to prison. When they said 100 years — it was terror, pure terror, to me.”
Aaron Hart pleaded guilty to charges including aggravated sexual assault and indecency by contact, and his case went to a jury for punishment. Jurors had the option of probation, former attorney Ben Massar told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
But during sentencing, Lamar County Judge Eric Clifford decided to stack the sentences against Hart after jurors settled on two five-year terms and three 30-year terms in February. At the time, Hart had already been on probation on a misdemeanor theft charge and had faced a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief, Massar said.
This is going to require a big, deep breath on my part, because as I’m sure you all know, I’m not used to advocating lesser sentences for those who have committed acts of sexual violence. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it before in my life. But it’s exactly what I find myself needing to do right now, despite the fact that quite a few of you may strongly disagree.
And the reason I find myself having to do this is that I do not believe, not for a single solitary moment, that Aaron Hart was sentenced so harshly because of what he did. Every fiber of me believes that he was sentenced this way because of who he is — a person with a mental disability.
Now, of course, as I hope is obvious, the fact that Hart has a disability does not diminish what he did in the eyes of the boy who he assaulted. That boy is almost certainly going to have to deal with a whole lot of trauma, just like virtually all sexual assault survivors. Chances are that the man’s identity, and whether or not he has a disability, is going to mean very little to him in that particular regard. And I think that’s both entirely understandable and entirely fair.
I also want to take pains to point out that Aaron Hart did not commit an assault because of his disability. He didn’t do it because having a mental disability makes you a dangerous person. And to argue as much is as at least as supremely ableist and stigmatizing to those living with disabilities as this sentence is. My argument for why this sentence is outrageous is not at all based on this flawed and bigoted notion.
Further, I don’t know whether or not Aaron Hart understands what he did. I don’t know very much about his disability at all, and even if I had his medical records in front of me, I’m no expert able to make such an assessment. And while I disagree with this sentence, I can’t say what exactly the sentence should be. It’s worth noting that prison is quite frequently not a safe, reasonable or appropriate response to crimes committed by people with disabilities, and other responses are instead far better and more humane options. But whether this applies to Hart, I do not know. I don’t.
What I do know is that 100 years is absolutely ludicrous. Not because I think that the assault was “not a big deal.” Not because I think that “his disability made him do it.” I think neither of those things. I think it is absolutely ludicrous because I cannot tell you the last time I’ve seen a sentence that high for any case of sexual assault, including the “worst” kind you can think of, involving numerous perpetrators, torture, etc.
What I can tell you is that a conniving, predatory man who is believed to have raped well over 30 women got off with a mere 21 year sentence thanks to rape apologism and minimizing of what he had done. I can tell you about a man who is alleged to have brutally raped a four-year-old girl, requiring her to have surgery, who faced a maximum 20 year sentence. I can tell you of a rapist who received 3 and a half years, and only such a high sentence because the judge believed the victim was “stupid.” I can tell you of a man who raped a woman, and whose administration of a date rape drug killed her, and is serving only 5 years. While it’s not sexual violence, I can also tell you of a man who killed his first wife and stabbed and seriously injured his second wife, only to receive a total of 9 years in prison. Or of a man who murdered a sex worker and served a single day.
Obviously, all of these men should have served much, much higher sentences. And I don’t think that we should let certain perpetrators off with lighter sentences just because mistakes with regards to sentencing have been made in the past.
But I do think that we don’t take sexual assault even remotely seriously. I think that when it comes to sexual assault, when it comes to some of the most repulsive rapes you’ve ever heard of, we don’t take it nearly seriously enough. I don’t believe that suddenly, people have started taking it seriously and just happened to do so when the perpetrator is a man with a disability — especially when we’re talking about a state that has executed at least 30 people with mental disabilities. In fact, we just so happen to have a history in this world of getting fed up only when the person committing the offense is a member of a group who we already oppress.
I also know that when it comes to sexual violence committed against those with disabilities, which is actually a much more common occurrence, sentences look absolutely nothing like this. Certainly including those cases of abuse committed against young children. If you want evidence, just go read through the FRIDA blog. Or take a look at this one example I wrote about recently: a man who raped his daughter from the time she was ten years old, and received a mere ten years in prison for his 35 counts of assault. A man who was then let out of prison and raped his other daughter, who has a mental disability, and who will now be out again as soon as 2012.
The state has an interest in protecting its citizens, particularly those youngest and most vulnerable citizens. And then have every right, no, a responsibility, to determine if Aaron Hart poses an ongoing threat, and to ensure that he cannot act on it if he does.
But there are ways to do that without giving a man with a significant mental disability a 100 year sentence. There are ways to do that without furthering the lie that people with mental disabilities are somehow more dangerous than the rest of us, especially those who have a proven record of actually being far more dangerous. There are ways to do it without exploiting a member of society who is differently vulnerable. There are ways to do it that don’t involve a method of sentencing that is rarely used for sexual offenders who do not have disabilities.
There are ways to do it, simply, without being ableist.