TV6 investigates Child Sexual Conduct crimes: How sentences, plea agreements are decided

There are a lot of things that go into a plea agreement and a sentence that aren’t publicly available.
Published: Oct. 26, 2023 at 3:38 PM EDT
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UPPER MICHIGAN, Mich. (WLUC) - Sentences in criminal sexual conduct cases involving children can be some of the harshest punishments in a court of law.

Sentencing is up to the court which is why Marquette County Sheriff Detective Lt. Jason Hart says as an investigator he can only hope the sentence becomes a deterrent.

“Now, we hope as investigators that whatever sentence a court hands down fits the crime, but we ultimately hope that the sentence will reduce the offender’s likelihood that they’ll commit future crimes,” Hart said.

Judge Christopher Ninomiya serves in the 41st Circuit Court, which covers Dickinson, Iron, and Menominee counties. Ninomiya says when it comes to sentencing there are a few things judges need to consider.

“So what the sentencing guidelines do in the state of Michigan is they take into consideration a series of factors in every criminal case that comes before the court. They will look at someone’s prior record. They will look at the impact on the victim. They will look to determine if there are injuries in any particular case,” Ninomiya said.

Ninomiya says although Michigan no longer has mandatory minimums, judges still have guidelines to help with sentencing.

“It is a formula basically that analyzes all different factors of a case and then it kicks out a certain recommended set of guidelines that the judge should follow when imposing a sentence. Now again, we’re not required to follow that sentencing range. But if we don’t follow that sentencing range, ultimately we have to be able to indicate on the record why we’re deviating from that particular sentencing range,” Ninomiya said.

You may wonder about sentences in cases where someone pleas down such as former Finlandia professor Juan Marin who was caught in a sting operation soliciting a minor for sex.

Marin was originally charged with four felonies and faced 20-plus years in prison and $20,000 in fines but later pleaded down to a misdemeanor charge of accosting a child for immoral purposes.

If the plea agreement is accepted by the judge the penalty Marin faces is up to two years in prison. Marquette County Prosecutor Matt Wiese says in cases like these sometimes prosecutors prioritize getting the criminal on the sex offender registry.

Being on the sex offender registry means their online activity will be monitored and they will need to notify federal and local law enforcement agencies of any time they want to travel.

“We cannot guarantee that there will be a conviction which is one of the main driving forces why there are plea agreements so that you will get some Surety or assuredness that there’s going to be a conviction for sexual assault crime that will result in some incarceration and registration on the sex offender registry,” Wiese said.

Wiese says while the sentence is ultimately up to the judge, prosecutors have the ability to offer or withhold a plea agreement.

“What can be frustrating is when we are looking at a sentence for somebody who committed a sexual assault and we want to get a longer sentence and the judge perhaps won’t impose that sentence so that’s within the judge’s realm but there’s no plea agreement and there’s no charge unless we say it’s a plea or we say it’s a charge,” Wiese said.

But Ninomiya says that decision could be the result of a wide range of factors.

“There could be a number of factors that the public isn’t aware of and any particular case that may impact the settlement negotiations or the ultimate sentence that’s issued by the court. There could be a victim that is unwilling or unable to testify in open court about what happened to them. There could be parents that don’t want a young child to be re-traumatized or victimized as a result of having to go through a formal legal proceeding,” Ninomiya said.

Both Wiese and Ninomiya remind the public that there are a lot of things that go into a plea agreement and a sentence that aren’t publicly available.

Hart says the best way you can keep your kids safe is by monitoring their activity online and having regular conversations with them about the dangers of online grooming and exploitation.

If you would like to learn how law enforcement tries to be proactive in catching criminals committing CSC crimes against minors click here.

TV6 Investigates Child Sexual Conduct crimes: Part 1