Officials: Stiffen child abuse laws

Published 11:26 am Thursday, July 28, 2011

Charity and Bryan Miller are led down the hall of the Jail and Justice Center after being taken into custody on July 22 for chaining their 5-year-old son to his crib. Now, officials are looking at ways to stiffen penalties for similar cases. -- Herald file photo

In light of child-chaining case, officials consider more punishment

Local legislators may be working with the Mower County Attorney’s office in coming months to harshen penalties for child abusers in Minnesota.

Although nothing is official, Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said he plans to meet with Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen to discuss the sentencing statutes and what could be done to improve them.

“If it seems like (a change to the law) makes sense, I would certainly be willing to carry the bill or work with the appropriate people to make sure it happens,” Sparks said.

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Talk of drafting legislation for harsher punishment was spurred by the recent sentencing of the Dexter couple, Brian and Charity Miller, who chained their 5-year-old son to his crib and withheld food and bathroom access from him and his 8-year-old brother.

The Millers were sentenced to one year in jail on Friday in Mower County District Court — only half of what Minnesota law allows as the maximum sentence for their crimes.

“We would have liked to see the two years,” Nelsen said after the sentencing hearing Friday. “We would have loved to charge this as a felony.”

In her closing statement at the Millers’ sentencing hearing, Assistant Mower County Attorney Christa Van Gundy said the Millers, who were charged with gross misdemeanor crimes, should have been charged with felonies. However, Minnesota statute does not allow a felony charge based on the nature of the Millers’ crimes because “substantial bodily harm” did not occur.

“There is a gaping hole in the statute,” Van Gundy said in court Friday. “Had an emergency occurred, (the chained boy) could have sustained substantial bodily harm; the defendants wouldn’t have had to do anything further.”

Sparks said some area residents have spoken out about the Miller case, especially in light of the recent Casey Anthony verdict.

“Any time children are involved in crimes, it really does get people wanting to see justice served,” Sparks said. “We have seen some people say they are a little disappointed in the current system.”

Sparks contacted Nelsen shortly after the Millers were sentenced because, based on her post-sentencing statements, he sensed she was frustrated with the sentencing restrictions for gross misdemeanor child abuse.

“The county attorney seemed a little frustrated or disappointed maybe, and she wished there was a different penalty or maybe some changes to the law that needed to take place,” he said. “We’ll certainly sit down and I’ll get their take on it, and we’ll try to come up with some kind of solution if that’s possible.”

Nelsen and Van Gundy declined to comment until legislation has been drafted.