'Sexually Violent Predator' tag debated
Attorneys, offenders debate Colorado's use of 'sexually violent predator' designation
Christine Reid, Daily Camera, March 8, 2008
What is a sexually violent predator?
A sexually violent predator is defined by Colorado law as
The perpetrator could be a stranger or a person who promoted a relationship with the victim for the purpose of the crime.
When the court finds a defendant to be a sexually violent predator, it is determined through the pre-sentence report the court gets at the time of sentencing. A sexually violent predator risk assessment is supposed to be part of that report, and the judge makes the determination after the prosecutor and defense attorney get a look at the report.
A person being considered for parole from prison also can be administered the sexually violent risk assessment tool and labeled by the parole board before he or she is set free.
The SVP test
The Colorado Sexually Violent Predator Assessment Screening Instrument was developed by the state's division of criminal justice with help and approval by the state sex offender management board.
"Yes" answers count as one point. The weight of the last three questions are measured by a "scale criteria" system based on more questions and actions by the offender.
A score of 4 or above means the label gets attached.
Longmont resident Dwight Jackson says the term "sexually violent predator" conjures up images of a 50-year-old man hiding behind a bush and snatching up 4- and 5-year-old children -- not his 22-year-old son.
Yet that's the unsavory title Sean Christopher Jackson will carry for the rest of his life after denying to Colorado's parole board that he's a rapist.
Arrested in 2004 on suspicion of sexually assaulting two girls, aged 14 and 15, Sean Jackson insisted the sex was consensual. He took a plea deal to avoid a possible life sentence, his father said, and spent three years in prison. Now he's barred from even seeing his two younger sisters until they turn 18, thanks to the predator tag.
Colorado's sexually violent predator label was created in 1999 to warn communities -- through public meetings and frequent registration with police -- of those offenders most immutable to treatment and, according to research, most likely to reoffend.
Despite those intentions, the designation -- which can be affixed by a judge at sentencing or the parole board at the conclusion of a prison sentence -- has attracted its share of naysayers, including those bearing the label and inside the criminal-defense community, as well as some police and prosecutors. One local legislator is even trying to change the law so that only a judge -- and not the parole board -- can affix the sexually violent predator tag to offenders.
Just hearing the phrase "sexually violent predator" can strike fear in neighbors, notes former Boulder County sex-crimes prosecutor Ingrid Bakke.
Crimes of violence
At the end of 2007, there were 354 people designated as sexually violent predators by the state of Colorado, according to the Department of Corrections. Of those, 157 were labeled by the state's parole board. Three hundred remain incarcerated.
Currently, two sexually violent predators call Boulder County home -- and both say their crimes involved consensual sexual relationships with underage girls.
Friday, a bill designed to change the way people convicted of sexual crimes receive the label was approved on a second reading by the Colorado House of Representatives. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, seeks to require that the judge handing down an offender's sentence also determine whether that person gets the sexually violent predator label.
Boulder defense attorney Mary Clair Mulligan said the label shouldn't be slapped on men who are just older than the legal limit who are convicted of having consensual sex with underage girls.
While the tag includes the word "violent," those bearing it may not necessarily have been convicted of violent crimes. Of the five sexually violent predators who have ever lived in Boulder County, two were convicted of touching victims over their clothing.
Sex offenders are the lepers of the 21st century, said Denver defense attorney Phil Cherner, even though two-thirds of them are sentenced to serve time in the community, not prison.
Yet sex assault survivor Renee Dulany does not think Colorado's predator law is broad enough.
Last summer, Rudy Gaytan was convicted of brutally raping Dulany at knifepoint in Longmont in 1996 -- but he cannot earn the sexually violent predator label because his crime occurred before that law went into effect. He was sentenced to 72 years in prison earlier this month.
Dulany said victims of sex assault can't be healed with medicine or treatment -- it is something they live with every day.
Janine D'Anniballe, the executive director of Boulder's Moving to End Sexual Assault, said the intent of the law is to give a "heads up" to the community.
However, D'Anniballe said, the label has a lot of focus and fear attached to it, when, in reality, the majority of sex offenses are perpetrated by people the victim knows -- not strangers jumping out of the bushes.
Michael Dell said he's seen overreaction to the predator label firsthand.
Dell was convicted of sexual assault in Boulder in 1999. He does not carry the sexually violent predator label, but as a board member of Colorado CURE -- a national organization that advocates on prison issues and also acts as a clearinghouse to help former inmates -- he talks to lawmakers about the effects of the legislation they pass.
But the problem lies in how the system identifies that group, he said. Not distinguishing between those who seek out strangers and those who are familiar to their victims, and also not separating those who have multiple victims or those who attack strangers is troubling, Dell said.
And the label itself is so inflammatory it makes living on the outside of prison walls very tough for its designates and drives some underground, meaning they fail to register.
Laurie Kepros, a public defender in Arapahoe County who specializes in sex cases, said when sex offenders are given the predator label by a judge in court at the time of sentencing, they at least can have help from an attorney to dispute the designation.
However, she said, when the parole board labels offenders there is nobody advocating for the defendant. That is problematic, Kepros said, and she is hearing more and more "horror stories" -- people being given the label even after the court deemed they were not qualified for it, and others slapped with the label when their crime doesn't fit the definition.
But David Michaud, chairman of Colorado's parole board, defended the post-prison labeling.
He said the parole board is just following the law, using the Colorado Sexually Violent Predator Assessment Screening Instrument, which was developed from research collected by Colorado's division of criminal justice and approved by the sex offender management board.
When the label is applied in court, it happens at a public hearing -- but the parole board meeting is closed.
Offenders are given at least 24 hours' notice of the possible label and have a chance to submit evidence or call witnesses to try and fight the designation, Michaud noted.
Michaud said he knows there will always be people not happy with how they were labeled, but the real retribution to his board will come when an offender passes the assessment test, leaves prison without the sexually violent predator tag -- and then reoffends.