Denver Post

Sunday, August 8, 1999

Harsh justice

Penalty questioned in juvenile sex case

By Kevin Simpson
Denver Post Staff Writer

JEFFERSON COUNTY - The incident started as some roughhousing between teenage friends - and wound up in court as a sex-assault case.

Two years ago, a 15-year-old boy, during a tussling match with a girl outside their school, fondled her and kissed her breast.

Today, the boy is only just getting off probation. He was charged with a felony, ordered to undergo therapy - and earned a spot alongside rapists, pedophiles and other sex offenders for perhaps the next 10 years on the central registry.

Even the mother of the victim thinks the system dealt with the boy too harshly.

"It's unfair to have somebody who committed a very small crime punished like this,'' she says. "On a scale of 1 to 10, he's a 1. But the 10s and the 1s are put on the same list. When you hear "sex offender,' you think the worst.''

But Laura Dunbar, Jefferson County's chief deputy district attorney for juveniles, contends that stern prosecution of juvenile sex offenders stands the best chance of stopping sexually abusive behavior. Years of ineffective diversion programs convinced her that a hard line needs to be drawn.

"Our philosophy - and I think it's the right philosophy - is to treat them harshly as juveniles,'' Dunbar says. "Adjudicate, make them plead to what's charged, make it clear to them that there are consequences - that's the right message to send to juveniles.''

Over the past three years, Jefferson County has filed more juvenile sex-offense cases than any other jurisdiction in Colorado - more than twice as many as Denver for the same period.

Dunbar says her office tries to coordinate punitive and therapeutic measures in dealing with sexually abusive behavior, working in concert with agencies such as human services, law enforcement, schools, probation and victim advocates.

The challenge is to come down hard on the abusive behavior and still rehabilitate the kid. Quick assessment and intervention work best, Dunbar says.

The incident that landed the 15-year-old boy on the registry unfolded one December evening before a high-school basketball game.

According to the school police officer's report, constructed from interviews with the two teens, the boy and girl were strolling the deserted second-floor hallways of their high school when he wrestled her pager away from her and wouldn't give it back.

Wrestling match

A teacher happened upon them unexpectedly and told them to get back downstairs where they belonged. The boy ran outside, and the girl trailed after him, demanding the pager back.

"You're going to have to get it,'' he reportedly said, sliding the pager inside the front of his pants. Eventually, they tumbled to the ground and he pinned her.

When the boy continued to ignore her plea to return the pager and let her up, the girl grabbed his genitals. The boy responded by saying he'd kiss her if she didn't let go. She kept squeezing, he kept countering with promises to touch her in more intimate places. Finally, he fondled and kissed her breast.

"OK, fine,'' she told him, releasing her grip. "You can have my pager.''

They both got up and eventually made their way back to the school building. He asked if she was going to tell. She said no, but she needed her pager back. A little while later, after a mutual friend intervened, he returned it.

The incident was over. But the consequences were just beginning.

Two days later, the girl disclosed what had happened to the resource officer on duty at the high school.

"Right after it happened, before the cops were called, I knew it was wrong,'' the boy says now. Both he and his father agreed to talk on condition that they not be identified.

Jefferson County's Dunbar says the facts of the case clearly met the elements of third-degree sexual assault - contact for purposes of arousal, gratification or abuse. The boy's act of putting the pager down his pants indicated sexual intent from the beginning, she says.

There was no trial, no plea bargain. The boy's father, acknowledging his son's inappropriate behavior toward the girl, says he wanted to do the right thing - spare the girl a court appearance and drive home to his son that such behavior has consequences. Maybe, he figured, his son even "needed a little scare.''

Like many parents of juvenile offenders, he didn't hire an attorney. He and his son answered a summons and conferred with a prosecutor. He says he asked the prosecutor twice about the likely consequences of a guilty plea and was told: probation and treatment.

The father felt both were appropriate - and, in fact, already had his son seeing a private therapist regarding some education disabilities. He assumed that whatever therapy the court required could be handled by the regular therapist the boy already knew and trusted.

He directed his son to plead guilty to a Class 4 felony.

"My jaw dropped to the floor when I learned that the guilty plea meant registration, and that my son had to be assessed in a county-authorized assessment center,'' says the father.

Dunbar says the father would have been required to sign a sixpage petition that, on the last page, includes the condition that the defendant will have to register as a sex offender - although the document makes no mention of any specific duration.

The father contends the guilty plea was handled verbally.

"What was striking to me,'' he says, "was the complete lack of information.''

The father hired an attorney and considered trying to withdraw the guilty plea. On the attorney's advice, he decided that to do so might only make the system come down harder on his son. He saw nothing to do but accept the sentence and try to move on.

"We never denied his culpability,'' the father said at sentencing. "We never wanted to bring the young lady involved to court or we never wanted to drag the court through any of this kind of stuff . . . I guess I just wish the process was different and we had a chance to really know what could happen before we entered a plea . . . I think his chances of staying in school or getting in the military or doing good jobs after school will all be influenced by that stuff.''

Day in court

In the courtroom, the victim's mother looked at the boy's distraught parents and then at the kid himself. She said she remembers thinking, Here's a boy who knows he did wrong. She also remembered that when she was a teenager and a boy went too far, a girl replied with a firm smack and some sharp words.

"Every teenager goes through this,'' she said. "How far can I get? When do I stop? We all go through a trial period. Girls tease boys, boys tease girls. It's growing up, a learning process. Had it gone further, had it gone to actual sex, then whatever the court system decides is the punishment, I'm all for it . . . But he doesn't deserve to be put on this list and pay this kind of price.''

In Colorado, the registry works much the same for adults and juveniles. Those convicted of Class 1, 2 and 3 felonies must register for at least 20 years; Class 4, 5 and 6 felons register for 10. Misdemeanors require a five-year registration period.

Sex offenders must re-register each year with their local law enforcement agency, which makes the list available to the public. The registry contains the name, address and physical description of offenders and lists the legal description of their crime, but contains no details of the offense.

Offenders go on the list immediately after adjudication, but the period of registration doesn't begin until they have completed probation - and it doesn't necessarily end at the specified duration. Those on the registry must petition for removal.

New law for juveniles

In July 1998, a new law - backed by Dunbar, among others - revised the juvenile requirements so that kids adjudicated as sex offenders before age 16 can petition to be removed from the list once they've completed probation and therapy.

Dunbar says the boy meets the requirement and can apply to be taken off the list. But the petition process, in its infancy, remains mostly uncharted territory.

At the time of his adjudication, the boy was still looking at 10 years, minimum, on the registry. And the consequences of his sentence, bumped higher by the sexoffender label, extended well beyond the letter of the law.

Although the boy had been seeing a private therapist before the case went to court, Jefferson County - like many other jurisdictions - requires treatment only by specified providers, usually those listed by a statewide board as complying with certain sex-offender treatment principles and guidelines.

The boy's father had two primary concerns about this therapy.

First, its confrontational approach demanded that the boy detail his sex offense to his siblings - an exercise that resulted in one younger sibling threatening to tell friends. Second, the boy's father says written work for class and one interview broached topics of perverse sexual behavior - necrophilia and bestiality, to name two - that he felt were totally inappropriate.

"I felt all along that he's been exposed to more heinous things than what he ever dreamed of,'' says the father.

Second, the cost for his son's court-ordered treatment is closing in on $10,000. There are no programs to help with the cost, no sliding scales based on ability to pay. But failure to follow through on the therapy automatically endangers an offender's probationary status.

The sex-offender label put other restrictions on the boy's life - some imposed directly by conditions of his probation, others selfimposed as a result of the stigma attached to the offense.

"Being registered, having that hanging over my head, worries me when I'm in a close relationship,'' the boy says. "I get worried, scared and nervous. That's been a painful aspect, every time.''

He couldn't leave the state without permission. Any job he took had to be pre-approved and involve no unsupervised contact with females under age 18. Once, when the boy had an opportunity to participate in a program to assist middle-school band students, probation required that he disclose his sex offense.

"Rather than do that, he withdrew and dropped out,'' says the boy's father. "Those are the kinds of issues he faces - reveal yourself or just leave. He's chosen to just leave.''

The boy not only left the program, but he also left the school. Eventually, he transferred to a new school for a fresh start.

"I know it's cost me friends,'' says the boy. "I've backed off a lot of my old friends. And one of the reasons I started going to (my new school) is to make new friends I could trust. I'm treated like a normal kid.''

The boy and his father worry what a sex offense on his record might mean for his future employment and education.

Technically, his juvenile adjudication is considered a civil action, not a criminal conviction - so when he fills out a job application, he can truthfully say he has never been convicted of a felony.

But that doesn't erase worries about background checks, which may be required for certain employment and reveal the sex offense. And the sex-offender registry is still so new - it was created in 1991 - that no one knows how the petitioning process will shake out in the long run.

"It's difficult to predict that a particular person is someone you need to keep an eye on, a potential rapist or murderer,'' says Dunbar. "Take this case. I think it was pretty outrageous behavior. But you don't know the degree to which it was sexually oriented and the degree to which it was just a physical thing over the pager. Even the experts say there's a bit of guesswork on this.''

Despite mixed feelings about the registry, Dunbar doesn't buy into the notion of the juvenile sex offender as victim. She says that attitude minimizes the crime and ultimately helps no one.

But the boy says the stigma of the registry took his punishment far beyond just consequences for his behavior. The power of the registry hit home when a friend told him that a neighbor had accessed the sex-offender list and saw his name was on it.

"That scared me that people can actually find out whenever they want, and criticize a person worse than they've already been criticized,'' says the boy, who struggled for a response to the news that someone had seen his name on the list.

"I told him I have kind of a common name.''

Copyright 1999 The Denver Post.