I decided to write this week on the Robert VanNatta sentencing from last week because for the past week that’s what everyone has been talking about.
Ordinarily it’s probably not useful to second-guess all the people involved in the criminal justice system over one sentence or one case. When you’re done reading this, you may or may not agree with my conclusions; this is intended more as insight than Monday-morning quarterbacking.
A sentence for any criminal conviction is the result of the work of three groups of people — the state Legislature, which decides what should be illegal and the penalties for violating laws; the police and district attorneys, who arrest and prosecute those they believe are violating those laws; and the judge, who decides the legally-correct punishment upon a conviction.
The VanNatta sentencing — 15 years prison and 10 years extended supervision (measured concurrently, since that’s how VanNatta was sentenced) on two felony and 41 misdemeanor charges — isn’t the first time Grant County’s judges have been criticized for what are viewed as lenient sentences. The 21 defendants in last May’s Platteville drug raid, most of whom faced felony drug charges, got sentences no longer than two years probation. Most of them have the chance to have their records expunged upon successful completion of probation. That has made people — and I have to imagine Grant County law enforcement — wonder what was the point of nearly a year of undercover drug buys and those 21 arrests if they all got off seemingly relatively lightly.
If, however, you were the defendant in a criminal proceeding, it would be, to paraphrase from a criminal complaint, against your legal interests if you didn’t want a lenient judge. The marijuana sentences could be explained as an opportunity for the defendants to undo a mistake. The related issue is that the group that decides what’s illegal and how it should be punished, the Legislature, doesn’t appear to consult much with those who decide sentences, the judges. (And possibly not with those who enforce those laws either.) There is no political incentive for a legislator to be viewed as being “soft” on crime. But every jail or prison sentence results in substantial financial cost to us taxpayers.
A plea agreement involves jiu-jitsu between the district attorney’s office and the defendant’s defense attorney. The former has, in this case, the threat of even a fraction of 907½ years in prison upon conviction. The latter has, in this case, the threat of taking all 105 of those charges to trial, with thousands of dollars in taxpayer expense, as well as the threat of cross-examining the victims if they testify for the prosecution.
(I’ve had people ask why the Armin and Jeremy Wand cases are going to trial — in the former’s case, beginning Feb. 23 — when they are facing four life sentences each if they’re convicted of first-degree intentional homicide. They’re going to trial because there is no incentive for either to plea-bargain when they’re facing four life sentences, and when taxpayers are paying for their defense. Plea-bargaining from four life sentences to, say, one life sentence still results in a life sentence.)
The most sensitive and controversial aspect is what started all this, the first 95 charges. State law says that sex with a 16- or 17-year-old is a misdemeanor. VanNatta’s attorney, Christopher Van Wagner, claimed in court that Wisconsin is the only state where the age of sexual consent is older than 16. That makes sex between, say, an 18-year-old high school senior and his 16-year-old girlfriend illegal.
The issue here, of course, is less that the victim was 16 than that the victim was 16 and VanNatta is 45. You need not be the father of a daughter (as I am) to be unable to explain or understand why the age difference doesn’t justify VanNatta’s being placed on the state sexual offender list, as the district attorney’s office wanted.
I’m neither a judge nor an attorney. If I had to guess why the sentence turned out as it did, I would surmise Circuit Judge Robert VanDeHey decided that VanNatta did not represent more than 15 years worth of risk to society at large. VanNatta’s victims were his wife and the 16-year-old, so one cannot say VanNatta’s crimes were random crimes. (In a substantial number of criminal cases, particularly violent crimes, the accused and the victim know each other.) The solicitation of first-degree intentional homicide charge was serious, even though the idea that a Grant County Jail inmate can find another inmate to compel a horse to throw its rider, causing fatal head injuries, seems unlikely to succeed, although I’m not aware that’s a criterion in sentencing on that charge.
Van Wagner brought up VanNatta’s history of mental illness. I’m uncertain why that should matter, because what prompted the crime doesn’t change the reality of the crime to the victim of that crime. The majority of those with mental illness are, if anything, a danger to themselves and not others. But VanNatta’s actions traumatized the victims, including his own family.
The criminal justice system is supposed to be about protecting society from bad acts. (The recidivism rate demonstrates the justice system may not be working in that regard.) I’m not sure society has been protected in this case. VanNatta will be released from prison when he’s 60 and the victim in those 95 charges will be 32. The question society will want to know is whether VanNatta will prey on some other 16-year-old when he’s released from prison.
Some might argue that it’s improper to criticize VanNatta’s sentence because you don’t know every last detail about what went into that sentence — the circumstances behind the 105 charges (plea-bargained down to 44, with five additional charges dismissed but read into the record for restitution purposes). The reason that attitude is wrong is that we taxpayers are paying for the criminal justice system, and therefore we get to have a say, including in elections for sheriffs, district attorneys and judges.