Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2021

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Young, but ‘predators’ for life

New sex-offender laws, meant to protect, may instead ruin lives and increase risks

Everything began with babysitting. Michael's mother often made him watch her boyfriend's 7-year-old son, Aaron.

One afternoon, while his mother was working, 15-year-old Michael performed oral sex on Aaron, and on at least three occasions persuaded the child to fondle him in return.

What happened during those afternoons remained secret until Aaron tried to touch a cousin, who told his parents. Together, the boys' families dug out the truth about Michael.

What he did may have been an echo of what was done to him. Michael said he spent the first half of his life being sexually abused by a grandfather who held his grandson on his naked lap.

“Growing up, I had been through some sexual situations with older people, so I think it was acting out of curiosity. But I've learned some other things that were a factor -- being angry, feeling left out in some things, feeling abnormal and alone,” he said. “I still feel that way.”

Michael is a child who sexually assaulted another child, but is he a monster? And should he be punished like a man?

This summer, Nevada's juvenile sex offenders will become subject to the strictest sanctions this state has seen. Under new state laws that take effect in July, passed to implement federal laws and keep federal funding, teenagers such as Michael will be punished as adults, lumped in with rapists and pedophiles.

For example: A 14-year-old boy found guilty of fondling a 13-year-old girl one time will have his photograph posted on national public Internet sex offender registries for at least 25 years. He will be there alongside a 50-year-old teacher found guilty of sexually assaulting several students in his first-grade classroom.

Many experts, including social workers, psychologists, academics, attorneys and even prosecutors interviewed by the Sun, question whether this is in the best interests of the child or the community. And some raise even more uncomfortable issues: about children's culpability, how well they understand what they've done, about how we as a society want to treat disturbed youth -- like hopeless felons or troubled teens who need help? About whether we can arrest and punish our way out of this problem.

Under the new laws, faces and addresses will be featured on online registries; awkward pubescent mug shots among those of adult felons. Many of the young offenders will be banned from parks, movie theaters and perhaps even schools. Fliers detailing the crimes of some of them will be mailed to neighbors. Some will be required to register publicly as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. All will be expected to give a DNA sample.

David Prescott, president elect of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and an author of several scholarly publications on youth who prey on youth, said treating kids like monsters might make them monsters.

“It is too easy to assume the worst from looking at a specific sex charge,” he said, “and it is too easy to have kids damaged as a result.”

Under the new laws, juvenile sex offenders cannot have their cases sealed -- to illustrate the gravity of such a rule, consider that teenagers who commit violent assaults, who drive drunk, who chronically steal or get caught carrying guns, can all petition to have their records sealed when they turn 21. Only juvenile sex offenders, in other words, must carry their cases for the rest of their lives.

And incidentally, Nevada's new laws are retroactive. Anybody who was at least 14 years old and convicted of a crime against a child after July 1, 1956, is subject to the new regulations. This means unknown numbers of Nevada sex offenders are subject to rules they might not know about and yet will be expected to obey or face felony charges. This, despite evidence that juveniles are far less likely to re-offend than adults; despite widespread belief that juvenile offenders are best served by legal intervention tailored to the needs of a child; despite academics saying that publicizing a juvenile sex offender's crime may, in fact, make the problem worse.

Nevada lawmakers voted unanimously to pass the new sex offender legislation, though some of its most vocal supporters now say they were unaware of the laws' effect on teenagers. They say they did not know about their effect on the state's juvenile justice system, which has traditionally operated under the philosophy that delinquent children should be treated as a vulnerable group requiring care and protection.

Outraged by what it sees looming, the Clark County public defender's juvenile office is challenging the constitutionality of the new laws. It's a fight the lawyers are picking locally, though the case will likely end up before the Nevada Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, unless his attorney can prevent it, Michael's face and crime will find their way onto the Internet.

Michael is a high school student with A-B grades; a quiet kid, one who likes auto mechanics and is petrified of girls; a teenager nauseated by the thought that his friends will soon find out.

The public outing, Michael said, “will basically ruin my life forever.”

@Dots:• • •

It's freezing in Judge William Voy's courtroom. So cold that smiling bailiffs offer their sweaters to spectators. And it is here, on the first floor of the Family Court building, that Clark County's juvenile sex offenders come to shiver before the judge.

Roughly one-quarter of sexual assault offenders are juveniles, according to Justice Department statistics. They commit roughly one-third of all reported sex offenses against children, according to the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth.

The teenagers -- boys mostly -- shuffle into Voy's courtroom wearing the detention center standard, the bright and shapeless broadcloth shirt and pants. And they clink. A chain worn around the waist anchors a handcuff to each side of the body. This means that should a boy cry, and want to wipe his nose, he must lower his head to his hands.

Most come through the back door in chains, though some come through the front door with parents, in which case, though nobody is handcuffed, everybody looks pained.

This afternoon, a 16-year-old stands charged with fondling a younger relative. He looks to be 6 feet 2 inches tall and appears dazed. His attorney tries to broker a bargain: no detention time, lots of therapy. Most juvenile sex offender cases end with a plea deal. Going to trial is undesirable because it means child victims must testify for an audience.

The attorney talks. The boy's mother sits and seethes. She thinks the victim manipulated her son. Her sister, the victim's mother, thinks this giant, sheepish teenager gets away with everything. This is another reason cases don't often go to trial. Most offenders victimize someone they know. Family and friends must choose a side to support, a difficult position for those who are close to both.

When asked by the judge whether he has something to say, the 16-year-old responds with a question: Can he still go on vacation with his parents next week? He can. Appeased, the teenager grins and leaves the courtroom with all the confidence of someone remorseless.

There may be an explanation for this: He's autistic.

Yet under the new laws, his photograph and address would likely appear on Internet sex offender registries. He's another Clark County teen whose life could be drastically affected by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.

The federal bill is the driving force behind all of Nevada's new sex offender laws. Signed by President Bush in July 2006, it's another in a series of measures enacted in the 1990s in the wake of several high-profile child abductions.

The Jacob Wetterling Act, named for an 11-year-old who was taken from his home and never seen again, required states to create individual sex offender registration programs. Megan's Law, passed two years later after a 7-year-old was killed by a known sex offender living across the street, made those state registries viewable to the public.

The Walsh Act is named after Adam Walsh, who was abducted and killed in 1981. He was the son of John Walsh, who later became the host of “America's Most Wanted.” The act establishes a national system for sex offender registration. It also creates a massive online registry -- a Web site searchable by anyone, anywhere.

Nevada had to change many of its laws to satisfy the requirements of the Walsh Act. State legislators went further and adopted even stricter sanctions.

It's a policy shift buried in a rat's nest of legal language, but its intentions are clear: to make sure the law deals with all sex offenders, whatever their age, as predators.

Nevada's new rules reserve their harshest punishments for those who target children. And certainly, not many people will lose sleep worrying about the treatment of sex offenders who prey on children.

Yet it is juveniles who, by default, will bear the brunt of the legal penalties, because their crimes almost always involve other kids.

These penalties include requirements that they submit to random searches, polygraph and drug tests; abide by a curfew; and abstain from drinking. In addition, convicted teens need a probation officer's approval before having unsupervised contact with anyone younger than 18, before accepting employment, before moving and before getting Internet access.

For many, these regulations must be obeyed for a lifetime.

In cases in which the victim is younger than 14, which is likely in the juvenile court, the penalties are even stricter. In those circumstances, the juvenile offender cannot live within 1,000 feet or be within 500 feet of any structure designed for use primarily by children.

It is unclear how these young offenders will continue to attend school, or whether, once their secrets are spilled, they'll be welcome.

All sex offenders are classified by “tier levels,” numbers ranging from 1 to 3 that indicate risk of re-offending. The lower the number, the lower the risk.

Currently, offenders are assigned a tier level by court-appointed psychologists or therapists who assess risk factors case by case. They consider the number of times the abuse occurred, prior criminal acts, potential access to other victims, compliance at home and school, academic records, intellectual function, parental support. The result is a highly personalized evaluation.

This year, tiers will instead be determined by a rigid classification, one that assigns a level based on the offense. It's a cold calculation: You do X, you get Y.

These rankings will be assigned regardless of extenuating circumstances, including autism, low IQ, mental illness or a history of family abuse.

This will cause the number of juvenile offenders deemed high risk to jump, said Clark County Chief Deputy Public Defender Susan Roskee.

This, despite the fact that, according to experts, juveniles are unlikely to re-offend.

Nationally, the recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders hovers around 10 percent, though some studies suggest the number is much lower. In Clark County, six of the roughly 300 young sex offenders on probation have been rearrested, though not necessarily for sex crimes. Some may have stayed out past curfew, shoplifted or used drugs.

Sexuality and impulse control are expected to come of age together, though sometimes they arrive out of sync. In youth, understanding of sex, notions of what is and isn't OK, of where the body's boundaries lie, are somewhat fluid. John Pacult, a licensed clinical social worker who treats many of Clark County's juvenile and adult sex offenders, said teenagers often end up on his couch because of an organic confusion.

“Kids still have experimentation variables, still have curiosity variables, still (are) trying to figure stuff out,” said Pacult, who has worked with offenders as young as 8. “To look at it in a simplistic sense is really naive.”

Meaning, he said, they're still kids.

It's an issue Roskee hopes to raise. Her office worked with the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union on the motion filed in Family Court on Dec. 28 arguing Nevada's new legislation is unconstitutional.

“Their brains are still developing,” Roskee said. “These kids are going through maturation and puberty. You throw emotional trauma, neglect or abuse into the mix and that makes their development even slower.

“And we are going to ostracize them. We are going to marginalize them, to put them into a category that will totally prevent them from ever assimilating into society.”

Many of the juveniles Pacult treats have fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effects. Others have bipolar, obsessive compulsive or attention deficit disorder. Some have histories of parental abuse or maltreatment. Children sometimes molest out of anger or a need to control. And some children are too young to understand sexual urges and are experimenting, Pacult said.

The academic community agrees that adolescent offenders are seldom pedophiles. They aren't attracted to children the way an adult might be and rarely target strangers. Where an adult might spend considerable time grooming a victim, seeking him out and luring him in, a juvenile offender is more likely to act in the moment, with a victim who often knows no better and acquiesces.

“Then there are kids that have more chronic acting-out issues,” Pacult said. “Sexual behaviors being just one of them.”

Kids are less likely to have deviant sexual interests or arousals, but more likely to be socially underdeveloped than adult offenders, said Dr. Kurt Bumby, a nationally recognized expert in the field. Although some teenagers will stop without intervention, those who receive treatment have a better chance of leading normal lives. That is, they do not become adult sex offenders. On this the research is consistent and clear.

What's not clear, Bumby said, is what happens when teenagers are “publicly labeled, and identified on the Internet in particular, as sex offenders.”

@Dots:• • •

Angie is in cosmetology school, wound tight as the hair she's learning to curl, waiting for someone to say something. Make a comment like the one she said a relative made the other day: “You're just a baby rapist.”

Again, everything began with babysitting. Angie, then 13, was watching an 8-year-old neighbor when she pulled him into a dark closet and performed oral sex. This remained a secret for two years, until Angie's victim, then 10, tried the same with another child.

By this time, Angie was no longer living in Clark County. Her family had decided to leave Las Vegas and gave 16-year-old Angie a choice: leave or don't. By then, she had a meth habit and a history of running away. She decided she would move with them to a small town near the Pacific Ocean.

Her parents put her right into rehab, and it was during a visit that her father broke the news -- she was wanted for a sex offense, four years after the fact.

She came back to Clark County to hear the charges. In the courtroom, Angie recalls, the mother of the victim told the court, “I would see (Angie) coming home from school and I would make my kids wave to her. I was making my kids wave to a monster.”

Angie does not remember much of what followed.

“That hit me pretty hard,” she said. “I think I went blank after that.”

She was found guilty (adjudicated, as they say in juvenile court) of lewdness with a child and sentenced to probation, counseling and various restrictions; no hanging out with minors, no pornography. By the time she was 17, a judge determined she was no longer a threat to society and took her off probation.

She thought she had paid her dues. But the next year, law enforcement came looking for her. Why, they wanted to know, hadn't she registered as a sex offender? Angie didn't know that in her new state she was required to register as an adult. After all, she had committed the crime as a juvenile and Nevada had taken her off the books.

Angie was arrested. Her face and address immediately went on the state's sex offender Web site and this information was posted in every school within 70 miles, she said.

She lost her fast-food restaurant job. Then she lost a waitress job at a country club. Then her father left her mother.

Official letters with Angie's photo were mailed to everyone in the neighborhood, detailing her crime. They will be mailed to her neighbors any time Angie changes addresses, until she is removed from the registry, which may never happen.

“I feel like everywhere I go,” she said, “people are looking.”

So now she's suicidal at cosmetology school, waiting for another student to say something nasty during perm practice.

“Sometimes I do see these little visions of me shooting myself in the head,” Angie said. “Everyone knows. And maybe my photo won't get off (the Web site) and it's so hard trying to be normal. It's made me hate the world. I would rather die than live like this.”

Angie said she was raped three times in a week when she was 9 by a group of teenage boys. She didn't say a word. Maybe it's why, she said, “my mind kind of started changing and I became bad.”

Angie said she hasn't re-offended. But then, she hasn't really done anything with her life besides wish it wasn't hers.

@Dots:• • •

From a quiet corner in the Family Court building, Public Defender Susan Roskee is on a mission to seal as many juvenile sex offender cases as she can. She's been combing through her files to see which cases can be shut and shutting them, bunkering herself with them like sandbags before a storm.

So far, she's sealed 14. She thinks she'll be able to seal 10 to 15 more before Nevada's new laws become effective. But if the laws are retroactive 52 years, will sealed cases protect anyone?

It's one of many questions surrounding the new laws. Even their backers seem unclear about what they have wrought. Some of the confusion stems from the fact that there are two bills, one of which reveals that it's applicable to juvenile offenders only through a meticulous read.

That bill was championed by many legislators, but most notably by Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, who recently said she was unaware the new laws would apply to juveniles.

“I don't recall any of that kind of discussion,” she said, adding that it “might be an unintended consequence.”

The bill was pushed by Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said, “The intent of the legislation is to protect children from dangerous sexual predators.” She could not comment on the bill's effect on juveniles.

The Attorney General's Office, responsible for carrying out the Walsh Act in Nevada, said in a written statement that the law “was proposed to help safeguard Nevadans from sex offenders. Numerous public hearings were held during the legislative session ... There were no objections to the constitutionality of any provisions ... Therefore, we will wait to hear what the court has to say.”

So, though little seems clear about Nevada's new sex offender laws, at least one thing seems inevitable: more litigation.

The laws' looming presence is already seeping into court. Before accepting guilty pleas, judges are making sure that teenagers accused of sex offenses are aware of the lifetime implications.

Because of the implications, lawyers will likely become less willing to resolve cases through plea bargaining once the laws are in effect, Chief Deputy District Attorney Teresa Lowry said. That will mean more trials and more victims testifying, she said.

“Is it justice? And can justice be accomplished in any other way that is less severe?” Lowry said. “As a prosecutor, I think we have to be diligent in identifying the number of offenders that are a danger to the community, while recognizing it is not all of them.”

But some of them. Few would deny that juveniles can commit sex crimes just as heinous as those committed by depraved adults.

Marc Klaas, who lost his 12-year-old daughter, Polly, to kidnapper, killer and rapist Richard Allen Davis in Northern California in 1993, believes the system needs to be harsh in dealing with sociopathic predators, even if they are children.

“If you have somebody acting out at a very early age and nothing is done to change his behavior,” Klaas said, “then you are creating a monster.”

But children must be considered individually, he said. Given the right intervention -- whether discipline or therapy -- a teenage sex offender might not fester into a full-blown predator, he said.

Lowry, too, believes the system must look at the specifics of each case.

When Lowry began working with sex offenders, she imagined they would all be teenage guys caught sleeping with teenage girls. Instead, she found herself prosecuting boys, many of whom had never been in trouble, for sexually abusing much younger children.

And not “let's play doctor,” Lowry said, but much more serious offenses, crimes you'd never see coming.

“So many of them had no other juvenile court involvement,” she said. “I was dealing with Eagle Scouts, the kind of boy you'd ask to babysit.”

But if it's a one-time incident, “done out of mental illness or the offender's own victimization or those different reasons that can be adequately treated, and it never happens again, does that youth need to register online? Does community safety require that?”

Moreover, juveniles don't get jury trials. Thus, Roskee said, the new law forces kids to accept adult punishment but denies them the adult constitutional right to a trial by peers.

Considering what is at stake, parents, hesitant to brand their children as sex offenders or see them suffer the lifelong penalties, might cease to report these types of crimes, which largely occur in the home. Not only will these children avoid punishment, clinical social worker Pacult notes, they'll also avoid treatment.

And those who do register, put their faces online and agree to never walk in parks or hang out privately with peers, they also will miss out on treatment, Pacult said. Not because they won't get therapy, but because it will be for naught.

“These children literally stand no chance at any form of rehabilitation,” he said. “None. They are going to destroy kids. There's going to be absconding. There's going to be suicides.”

Prescott agrees that suicide is a possibility. More likely, even predictable, he said, are wasted lives.

Studies show that young adult sex offenders have a harder time securing housing than older offenders. It is also more difficult for them to complete their education, said Prescott, of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. The result is unemployment, which, in turn, pushes juvenile offenders into what Prescott calls “socially disorganized, economically depressed neighborhoods.” Neighborhoods, he notes, that have fewer resources for deterring crime and protecting residents.

How this will all play out, given the retroactivity of the new laws, remains to be seen. Some sex offenders, juvenile and adult, have completed the terms of their parole and probation, started families and made lives for themselves, Pacult said. People may have entered plea deals just to put things behind them unknowingly agreed to terms that would come back to bite them. People who showed no risk of re-offending may now be considered high-risk offenders because of a crime that occurred 40 years ago.

“How does that make sense if an individual has done every single thing they promised to the court, probation, the community, the victim?” Pacult said.

Roskee argues that the retroactive nature of Nevada's new laws are in direct violation of a constitutional ban on ex post facto laws -- Latin for “from something done after” -- or laws that retroactively modify the legal consequences of a crime.

For its part, the U.S. Supreme Court has held unconstitutional any laws that “retroactively alter the definition of crimes or increase the punishment for criminal acts.”

Asking a sex offender to put his face on the Internet, Roskee said, after he pleaded to a crime 25 years ago and accepted a sentence that included no such requirement, is punishment after the fact.

And arguments for fairness, compassion and constitutionality notwithstanding, there is one other reason, experts say, for rethinking the new laws: community safety.

The more stress an offender is under, the more likely he is to re-offend, said University of Louisville professor Richard Tewksbury, who researches sex offender policy.

“The marginalization, the complete relocation of sex offenders to the outskirts of society, does little more than raise their anxieties,” he said.

@Dots:• • •

Conjure up a deviant sexual fantasy, then sniff ammonia. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. This is called aversion therapy. It's one of the techniques Pacult uses with juvenile sex offenders, part of the treatment it takes to cure a child of his thoughts.

Michael, now 17, has completed his court-mandated group therapy. He has sat in antiseptic rooms with other boys, their chairs pushed into a circle, and shared the story of his sex crime. He has learned that even yes can mean no, and that he has anger issues. He's done with therapy, swears he hasn't slipped up, but admits he's far from well.

“My whole past, I can't get over it. I've learned from it, but I can't completely move on. It's never been an easy childhood for me. I couldn't be a free and open person. I wasn't socially accepted because I didn't really want to talk to anybody,” he said. “A sex offense is a major thing.”

Michael still lives with his mother, who still dates the father of his victim, Aaron. But Aaron can no longer come over, and his absence makes the presence of the family's misery more plain.

“You can't really trust anybody. You can't really have a lot of close people. In my opinion, that's common sense,” he said. “People usually let you down.”

The only solution, Michael said, is to master some sort of emotional origami, folding himself inward until he's stiff and safe from himself.

Abigail Goldman can be reached at 259-8806 or at [email protected]

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