Not so long ago, the law granted underage sex offenders a turn at treatment and a second chance. But new federal punishment guidelines could tarnish them with a permanent criminal record.
From the SL Weekly by Mr. Eric Peterson
Shaun is an average Utah college kid in his early 20s. He juggles his chemistry studies, a 40-hour workweek, a girlfriend and a dog. He keeps up a frantic pace with youthful stride and optimism, all the while looking eagerly toward the future.
He had planned on a pre-med major but has shifted to a career in medical research instead. It will mean more classes, labs and bookwork, but Shaun has always been determined. Like other students, he started college in his late teens. But there, the similarity ends.
Shaun started working on his associate’s degree while locked up in a secure facility for juvenile offenders. At age 15, Shaun raped an older woman. He was adjudicated (juvenile justice parlance for “found guilty”) and sent to lockup, where he spent the next three years in intensive treatment, confronting the demons that haunted his childhood.
“I guess I had good memories as a kid, even though I was an angry kid … always hurting,” said Shaun, who asked that his real name not be used. He pauses, and then retracts. “I guess, though, I never was a kid. I always felt robbed of my childhood.”
Shaun can look back now on his former self as a shadow of the man he’s become but still remembers the dark days of his youth: a lockdown of the heart and mind that spurred him to sexual violence against another. “To hurt someone else, you have to change so much in your mind,” he says. “There are so many little mechanisms you create in your mind. You convince yourself that they deserve it. It’s sick, I know, but when I hurt her, I didn’t think I did anything wrong. The more bull—-t you create to make it OK, the more you have to wade through to get out of it.”
Shaun hated therapy at first. He hated how his counselors made him confront his dark urges. But now as a rehabilitated man, he speaks of treatment as his saving grace.
“I really grew up in treatment,” Shaun says, “I miss it almost, that’s my family. They helped me so much. It was only three years, but without those three years, I guarantee I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”
The potential for most juvenile sex offenders to conquer their demons and become normal, productive adults can, with treatment, be promising. One of Shaun’s primary therapists feels comfortable endorsing his recovery. “It is an incredible and humbling experience to stand alongside an individual who faces the horrible truth about what he’s done and, by so doing, develops the capacity to love and to be loved,’’ she says.
His therapist wholly supports treatment for juvenile sex offenders, but is watching with concern recent efforts to crack down on juveniles in this arena. Increasingly, politicians are taking a “throw the book at them” approach to violent juvenile crime. It isn’t completely without cause: high-profile cases involving violent juvenile offenders seem to pop up weekly.
The latest reaction to the problem comes by way of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, sponsored by U.S. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The act, which President George W. Bush signed into law last year, widens the scope of punishment for juvenile sex offenders more than ever before. By lumping juveniles into the same criminal categories as adult sex offenders, the act establishes a sex offender registry that could keep even the strongest examples of rehabilitation—like Shaun—branded as criminals forever.
Experts who work with troubled youngsters are asking if this law might not be going way too far.
To Crack Down or CoddleSex crimes against children conjure up the worst fears of a society. But, when the predator in these cases is another child, the crime confounds expectations of wrong and right, good and evil. Historically, children haven’t been held to as high a legal standard as adults. Yet, when a child commits such a horrific crime, punishment must be meted out. How tough should it be?
Juvenile justice has always been about second chances. Laws were written to give the offender a chance to rehabilitate while keeping the criminal record sealed from public view. But, under the provisions of Hatch’s Walsh Act, certain juvenile sex offenders will now be subject to the same strict punishment as adult offenders.
This means juvenile offenders 14 years and older, if adjudicated, will be required to register with a national sex-offender registry every three months and every time they change their name, address, student status or employment—for the rest of their lives. The mandatory punishment for failure to register under any of these circumstances could result in one-to-five years' prison time for an adult or secure confinement for a juvenile. With a clean record, a juvenile could get off the registry after 25 years of compliance. The act even may be retroactively applied. People like Shaun who accepted their punishment, took responsibility for their crime and completed treatment may land on the database. Under the old system, that result was unfathomable.
For a long time, the attitude toward juvenile crime has been forgiving, a sense of “they’re kids. They can change.” For critics, however, this “tough love” approach fails to account for the growing number of hardened, violent juvenile criminals. It just doesn’t work anymore, they contend.
While overall juvenile offenses may be down, in Utah, they seem to spike in more grievous areas: in 2005, juvenile rape arrest rates shot up 105 percent from 2004. These numbers reflect headline-grabbing stories like that of 17-year-old Robert Cameron Houston, sentenced this month to life without parole for the rape and murder of Raechale Elton, 22, a youth counselor of a Clearfield home for troubled teens. On a snowy night in February 2006, Elton gave Houston, a resident of the home, a ride home. Houston sexually assaulted Elton and repeatedly slashed her throat.
The sheer brutality of the of crime cemented in the minds of many that the youths simply don’t deserve a second chance. But critics of Hatch’s bill and other similar “get-tough” efforts, consider them political slam-dunks—written for big campaign mileage and passed before their full impact is realized.
To Protect the ChildrenProsecution of juveniles was not the thrust of the 2006 Walsh Act. Its main target was adult offenders who had slipped through the cracks of the system and taken advantage of state-to-state inconsistencies in sex-offender laws. Motivated by a number of well-publicized kidnappings, including the 2002 Elizabeth Smart case, Hatch wanted all states to participate in a uniform national database, stipulating across-the-board punishments for those who failed to register with the system.
The legislation was well-celebrated, and dictated a three-year period for states to integrate into the national database. The federal act set guidelines for states to follow but sentencing and other specifics were left to state legislatures.
Earlier this spring, experts in juvenile crime gathered at the University of Utah law school to discuss the Walsh Act and its effects in Utah. The panel included prosecutors, defense attorneys and social workers. While waiting for the forum to start, the panelists cracked jokes and casually talked shop. Underneath their ease, however, a tension persisted. This group was made up of professionals from varied backgrounds and political perspectives, each of whom expressed doubts and fears over how the law might change life for Utah’s juvenile offenders.
Jacey Skinner, a deputy district attorney for Salt Lake County, expressed concern over how the law could change the nature of juvenile courts.
“They [juveniles] will be on a registry, and that is a very adult publication, whereas the whole nature of juvenile court is that records are sealed, this isn’t public information. The point is that we want to rehabilitate them so they can become normal, productive adults,” Skinner said, explaining that if juvenile offenders now know that admitting guilt will mean being on a registry for life, they will be much less likely to voluntarily admit guilt and seek rehabilitation.
“Now, if you have this new sanction that’s going to follow you for the rest of your life, it’s not going to be easy to say, "All right, I accept these consequences, and I want to get myself into treatment,’” Skinner said. Previously, Utah’s juvenile courts avoided trials when it was likely the defendant would admit guilt and get started on rehabilitation. Harsher consequences are sure to gridlock the courts with longer trials and competency hearings.
“There’s a big debate whether juveniles can even be considered competent,” Skinner said, explaining that competency—the idea that a person is capable of understanding the nature of a crime, and taking part in his or her defense with an attorney—will be a bigger issue in juvenile courts.
Not only do these factors bog down the system; they also compound the grief and stress put upon the families of the victim and perpetrator. “Inevitably with juvenile cases, families are involved, and it’s always hard for them,” Skinner says.
Law-enforcement experts, however, make a public-safety argument. The threat of offenders repeating violent crimes, they say, outweighs other considerations.
Police Lt. Darin Durfey, head of the Utah County Sex Crimes Task Force, believes the current system is not working, given the recent explosion in juvenile sex offender arrests. “If you look at the national trend, the largest percentage increase in offenders are juvenile, as far as sex crimes go,” Durfey said, describing the situation as an “epidemic.” Juvenile courts have grown too lenient on young offenders, who then go on to repeat their crimes. Had juveniles under previous law been subject to more supervision, they might have been less likely to inflict sexual violence again, he said.
The risk factor of offenders striking again is enough to warrant putting juveniles on the registry, he says. According to the law, only the most dangerous juveniles or those who commit offenses “comparable to, or more severe than, aggravated sexual abuse” would end up there.
Durfey argues that perpetrators need to be more closely monitored, not just sent off to court-ordered therapy. The horrific nature of some of these crimes contradicts the notion of judicial mercy, even for juveniles.
The events of March 21 of this year support Durfey’s thesis. According to The Daily Herald in Provo, it was in the fruit orchards of the small Utah County town of Genola that a 13-year-old girl stumbled on a couple farmers burning weeds in a ditch. They found the girl hysterical, her face pale, blood pouring from knife slashes crisscrossing her neck. Police reported she had survived an attack by a 14-year-old boy. His crime ignited fear in the community and renewed talk about tough punishment for even the youngest criminals.
The Mind of a Sex OffenderDr. Peter Byrne, director of the Monarch Assessment and Treatment Center in Salt Lake City, works daily with sex offenders. He will be the first to tell you how dangerous his patients’ inclinations are. But he also believes society’s reaction is often overblown. “We seem to be caught in a current phase of get-tough legislation that makes a politician look good, but no one checks out how well it’s going to work, or how much its going to cost,” Byrne says.
For most therapists, any argument for changing juvenile-offender law should first consider what goes on in a child’s brain.
Dr. Michelle Gourley, licensed clinical social worker, holds a law degree and is co-owner of Choicepoint Therapeutic Services in Salt Lake City. The mind of a juvenile sex offender she says, differs vastly from that of the adult criminal. “Studies suggest that youths don’t put facts together and draw conclusions the way adults do,” Gourley says. “Even if they perceived a situation as risky or morally wrong, they wouldn’t necessarily have the ability to act on that awareness.” Gourley cites neurological studies showing that a young person’s cerebral cortex is not yet fully developed. The juvenile brain is malleable; it still can be shaped and corrected.
This explains why juvenile rates of recidivism (or rates of repeating a sexual offense) are drastically lower than rates for adult offenders. Gourley cites statistics from the Association for the Treatment of Sex Abusers, an international nonprofit research group that shows recidivism rates for adult offenders who have completed treatment is 32 to 51 percent. Even after treatment, as many as half of all adults reoffend. “But for juveniles, based on the most long-term study done in the nation … recidivism rates are between 6 and 14 percent. This suggests that the majority of youth who engage in sexual misconduct are not going to sexually reoffend,” says Gourley.
Gourley says juveniles’ violent impulses are generally related to traumatic abuse, but they don’t always lash out sexually against others in response to being sexually abused. They are more likely to commit sexual offenses as a reaction to physical abuse or after witnessing domestic violence.
Even if the juvenile suffered an upbringing so devastatingly traumatic that it instilled some impulse toward sexual predation, Gourley contends the brain is still developing and can be corrected.
Both Gourley and Byrne emphasize the law already has a way to pick out the most dangerous juvenile offenders: the practice of assessing minors to be tried legally as adults. Byrne recalls working on the case of a 14-year-old who had committed an especially heinous rape and assault. After a careful analysis, he concluded that, despite the boy’s age, the brutality of his crimes meant he should be tried and treated as an adult. This allows juvenile offenders who pose a true danger to public safety to be assessed case-by-case and treated as adults.
Utah’s Economic BindDespite the negative consequences of the Walsh Act, the state is in a tough spot as to what it can actually do. According to the law, by July 1, 2009, every state that fails to comply with the law could lose federal funding for juvenile-treatment programs. Former 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Robert Yeates has been following the act closely. Now executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, Yeates estimates the state of Utah could lose about $110,000 a year.
In his office at the state Capitol, Yeates shuffles through paperwork piled on his desk—leftover research of a new state sex-offender law that he pored over for two full weeks. Yeates has been anxious about the Walsh Act, but his concern is based more on decades of experience as a juvenile court judge and is not necessarily representative of the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice.
He sees the Walsh Act as vital legislation for adult offenders, but not juveniles.
Beyond the loss of federal funding, Yeates cites another risk: “I have a concern that if Utah did not pass the act, are we then going to have an influx of juvenile offenders coming here? I don’t want Utah to become a haven for juvenile sex offenders.”
A compromise might be to create a new standard of assessment for juvenile offenders and raise the age threshold for registration from 14 to 16. “Those offenders would only have to register if they were evaluated as presenting an ongoing high risk and were unresponsive to treatment. Then I would require them to register under the act. At least they would have the opportunity to get treatment and get their act together. If they were then unresponsive to treatment, they should be on the register,” Yeates says.
A veteran of tough legal wrangling and puzzles of policy, Yeates considers his solution with cautious optimism but notes with some resignation: “I guess it’s all somewhat academic; the act has passed.”
From the perspective of one who has journeyed from troubled youth to recovered adulthood, Shaun believes the act could further alienate juvenile offenders. He prides himself on his “emotional vulnerability,” to let down his guard and “to connect emotionally with people.
“[When you do that] you gain their strength, and they gain your strength. I think it’s the single greatest tool to keep you from harming someone. But it’s easy not to feel the worth of someone if you can’t connect with them,” Shaun says.
Ultimately, registering these juveniles as sex offenders may make them easier to monitor. But will the law forsake rehabilitating the child in favor of maintaining closer scrutiny? By branding someone a “predator,” will healing and redemption be sacrificed in order to calm the fears of society? These are the questions that linger in a debate obscured by impassioned rhetoric on both sides.
For Shaun though, it’s simple. “My goals aren’t lofty,” he says. “I just want to be happy.”
This article is being posted from a series of articles being written on Sex Offender Legislation that is currently pending. We at Western Capital support the reformation of Criminal Offenders and to force a child to be placed on a Sex Offender Registry for 25 years goes completely against the goal of reformation that we so openly believe in and teach. Society must look at the totality of the crimes that have been comitted by these juveniles and give them the HOPE that they need and deserve to overcome their past, just like adult offenders. We will continue to publish this series in its entirety so that our readers can see the difficult problems being faced by law makers as they address this sticky issue.