Tuesday, March 25, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The debate over Nevada’s juvenile sex offender laws landed in Family Court last week, where one thing about the controversial legislation quickly became clear: Nothing is clear at all.
As it turns out, everybody was wrong about the new laws. The district attorney, who is fighting for stricter legislation, and the public defender, who is fighting against it, each incorrectly interpreted what was considered one of the most problematic aspects: a rule that juvenile sex offenders couldn’t live within 1,000 feet or be within 500 feet of any structure designed for use primarily by children. That meant starting July 1, when the laws take effect, they couldn’t go to school, or to the movies for that matter.
Actually, they can. Everybody just misunderstood the 49-page legislation, which wasn’t hard to do. Many sections of Assembly Bill 579 read like lousy translations of Sanskrit.
The bill made changes to several existing laws and added a few new rules. The distance requirement wasn’t the only thing everybody has misinterpreted. As recently as late February, the defense and the prosecution, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, were still operating under the assumption that Tier 3 juvenile sex offenders, those deemed at the highest risk to offend again, would be required to publicly register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
Actually, they don’t have to. Even Tier 3 juvenile sex offenders, the most closely monitored of the four possible classifications, can petition for removal from the sex offender Web sites after 25 years. That was another misread.
But wait, there’s more! Susan Roske, the Clark County chief deputy public defender leading the charge against the sex offender legislation, still disagrees with Deputy District Attorney Jonathan VanBoskerck about the definition of a Tier 2 juvenile sex offender.
Roske believes a child needs to commit “X” offenses to become Tier 2, while VanBoskerck believes a child needs to commit “Y.” The differences between the interpretations are so nuanced that they’re almost as confusing as the laws themselves.
After studying the laws for months, Roske is “still confused about it,” she said.
She was happy to learn she was wrong, happy to learn the laws weren’t as restrictive as she’d imagined.
Only the confusion now presents an entirely new problem to fight out in court: Are the laws so incomprehensible that they’re illegal?
Laws that are too vague are unconstitutional. Roske and the ACLU hammer that point in arguments against the state’s juvenile sex offender laws, which are based on the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act that President Bush signed into law in July 2006. The Walsh Act lumps teenage sex offenders in with adults when it comes to certain punishments and requires that many of those juveniles be included in Internet sex offender registries. Critics argue this sets the teenagers up for a lifetime of shame so psychologically profound it could ruin their chances of rehabilitation. The same critics contend that juvenile offenders are very different from their adult counterparts, and that the two should not be treated, or punished, alike. This difference is the entire reason, they argue, we have separate justice systems for adults and juveniles, after all.
In January, Roske filed a case in Family Court arguing the juvenile sex offender laws are unconstitutional.
But now the debate has shifted away from the actual effect of the new laws on children to the language of the laws, and whether it makes sense. It’s become an argument within an argument, circular enough to cause dizziness.
Roske is concerned that if she couldn’t understand the laws, and still disagrees with the district attorney about certain aspects of the laws, then the laws could be arbitrarily enforced, depending on the person doing the enforcing and that person’s take on the legal jargon.
The first to figure out everybody had misunderstood certain elements of the laws was VanBoskerck. He saw a copy of the actual Nevada Revised Statute and realized there were differences between the laws as they would appear on the books and the laws as they appear in the bill. Straightening out those semantic differences is like splitting hairs with a dull blade.
Maggie McLetchie, staff attorney with the ACLU of Nevada, explains it like this: “The laws are, in their entirety, a confusing morass.”
VanBoskerck filed his discovery with the court Feb. 28, which is how Roske realized she too had read everything wrong. On Thursday, the attorneys squared off before Family Court Judge William Voy.
Roske opened her arguments with a statement about the confusion and how it underscores a world of problems inherent in the legislation.
VanBoskerck countered by brushing off her concern as no big deal.
“I made the same mistake reading the bill draft, but lo and behold, a little reflection, a little time, (and) we all pretty much agree (certain regulations) don’t apply,” he said, later adding, “Some bright people on both sides of the fence misread it.”
Voy is now sitting on that fence. He told those bright people he hopes to give them some kind of decision about the laws Wednesday. They’re hoping he’ll be clear.