The latest revelations about billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein underscore the unfortunate reality that justice isn’t blind — that too many, because of their position or their wealth, get a better deal in our justice system than those of lesser stature or wealth.
Epstein is accused of paying underage girls hundreds of dollars in cash for massages and then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. He “intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18,” according to prosecutors, who said he also paid some of his victims to “recruit additional girls to be similarly abused.”
Epstein pleaded not guilty Monday to sex trafficking charges. It was not his first brush with the law.
Eleven years ago Epstein faced similar charges in Florida. Miami U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, now President Donald Trump’s labor secretary, approved what many legal scholars term an extraordinary secret agreement in which Epstein pleaded guilty to lesser state charges rather than face much tougher federal prosecution on charges he sexually abused underage girls at his homes in Florida and New York from 2002 through 2005.
On Monday, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Bermam announced the indictment of Epstein, 66, on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges stemming from at least some of the same conduct that was covered in the agreement over a decade ago.
Epstein, who served 13 months after his 2008 plea deal, is now looking at 45 years behind bars if convicted in New York. Under the 2008 agreement, Epstein pleaded guilty to state prostitution-related charges and was allowed to go to his office during the day while he served his sentence. Clearly not what one would call “hard time.” He also registered as a sex offender and agreed to pay millions of dollars to dozens of his victims.
Two victims have sued the federal government contending that prosecutors in Florida violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act by failing to consult with or even inform them of Epstein’s deal. The Justice Department defended the plea agreement as proper, but a federal judge said it violated the victims’ act and is considering whether to void it.
Thankfully, judges and prosecutors across the county are beginning to come under fire for the way they have handled sexual abuse cases.
In 2016, a California judge was recalled after he sentenced a Stanford University student to six months in jail after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
In New Jersey, Judge James Troiano, a family court judge, was rebuked by an appeals court for refusing to try a 16-year-old boy as an adult. The boy had sexually assaulted an intoxicated 16-year-old girl, filmed the incident which he shared with friends and sent a text that said, “When your first time having sex was rape.
During the hearing, Judge Troiano said it wasn’t rape, defining rape as reserved for an attack at gunpoint by strangers. He also said the young man came from a good family, attended an excellent school, had terrific grades and was an Eagle Scout. Prosecutors, Troiano said, should have explained to the girl and her family that pressing charges would destroy the boy’s life.
Stature, wealth and family offer many benefits for those who are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy them.
A pass by the justice system should not be among those benefits.