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Stringent sex laws criticized by some

S.D. Legislature toughened penalties

Josh Verges, argusleader.com, September 3, 2007

Herself a victim of sexual abuse as a child, Natalie Fensand said she "flipped out" when she found an inappropriate note from her 8-year-old daughter to her 12-year-old son.

She immediately called the Department of Human Services in Minnesota's Faribault County, afraid that her son - who years before was sexually assaulted by an older cousin - was abusing his sister.

When she talked to her children, she found out they had touched and looked at each other naked one time months before she found the note. Her son, Jordan Bruegger, told his sister it didn't feel right, and he didn't want to do it again.

"I should have trusted my son. I should have trusted my parenting skills," said Fensand, who 11 years after the incident lives on a farm in Hudson.

Fensand hoped to get a counselor for the kids who would reinforce sexual boundaries. But what her son got was the juvenile equivalent of a felony conviction, which placed him on the sex offender registry as an adult and ultimately lengthened his Iowa prison sentence when, at age 21, he had sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend.

To Fensand, her son's case highlights what's wrong with the way society handles sex offenders. It's a system, she said, that doesn't distinguish between a predator and a curious kid and that would rather label a child than help him. Tougher penalties

Scott Pribyl, a psychologist at Great Plains Psychological Services in Sioux Falls, has evaluated and treated sex offenders for 19 years. He said it's encouraging that victims have grown more willing to report and discuss sex crimes.

"You don't see so many cases swept under the rug anymore," he said.

As the number of criminal sex cases has grown, so have the penalties. New laws across the country impose mandatory minimum sentences or closer monitoring of offenders after their release from custody. Critics say lawmakers have sometimes gone too far, and some states have since pulled back on the tough penalties.

South Dakota passed its own series of laws last year that forced registered sex offenders to keep closer contact with police and limited where they can live.

One of those laws put Bruegger's conviction in Minnesota on the South Dakota radar. It required Bruegger for the first time to register in South Dakota because he had to register in Minnesota, even though the juvenile conviction would not have required registration had it happened in this state.

With few exceptions, South Dakota requires all convicted sex offenders to register for life.

Pribyl would like to see a more discerning post-release supervision system, which imposes different requirements based on the offenders' likelihood of re-offending.

"Clinically, it makes sense, but so far in South Dakota, we tend to say sex offenders are sex offenders, and they're all dangerous," he said. "What all the research says is don't lump everyone into one basket."

Pribyl said the registration lists, which are being made public nationwide, make it difficult for offenders to find work and housing. In some cases, such restrictions might put the public at greater risk.

"In the long run, it may actually hurt the offender's chance" of staying clean, he said. "It's harder just to get along."

State Sen. Gene Abdallah of Sioux Falls said lawmakers considered a tiered system for sex offenders when changing those laws last year but decided what the courts do in pre-sentencing investigations is good enough. He said he doesn't expect sex offender laws to be addressed again in the next legislative session.

If they are, Sen. Nancy Turbak of Watertown probably would support reform. She said there should be different rules for low- and high-risk sex offenders.

"Everyone likes to jump on the bandwagon and take the hard line on sex offenders," Turbak said. "In the long run, we do very little good for the victims, state coffers or the offenders." Mandatory sentence

In January 2006, 10 years after the incident with his sister, Bruegger was arrested for having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. He was charged with third-degree sexual abuse and convicted at trial.

Sioux County Attorney Coleman McAllister said that because Bruegger refused a plea deal, he introduced Bruegger's juvenile adjudication for a sentencing enhancement.

Bruegger's actions with his sister were deemed a "sexually predatory offense" under Iowa law and brought the penalty in his second offense from a maximum of 10 years to a 25-year prison term; he must serve 85 percent of the time before he is eligible for parole.

The penalty seemed unfair to Bruegger's family as well as Judge James Scott, whose hands were tied by Iowa's mandatory sentencing laws for repeat sex offenders.

"Our Legislature has chosen to focus on sexual offenses and, I believe, in this case has produced a very harsh result," the judge said at the sentencing hearing in February.

"I think (state law) produces an unintended result of unfairly harsh punishment for this crime of consensual sexual contact between the defendant and the victim."

Bruegger is appealing the severity of the sentence. His lawyers noted in a brief that if he had been convicted of manslaughter as a juvenile instead of sexual conduct, he'd be getting out of prison sooner.

If the case had been prosecuted in South Dakota or most other states, the sentence would not have been enhanced by the juvenile conviction, and the judge would not have been bound by a mandatory sentence. Sister feels guilty

A victim in the law's eyes, Lacie Bruegger, said she lost her best friend when her brother was removed from the home for four years of inpatient treatment and foster care.

"We did a little touching, and it was over," said Lacie, now 19 and living in Mapleton, Minn. "He didn't do anything wrong. He just didn't know his boundaries."

Lacie said she hopes her brother's case catches legislators' attention. Juvenile records should be erased when the child turns 18, she said, and laws that required Jordan to register as a sex offender need to be rethought.

Fensand said Lacie feels guilty about the role she played in sending her brother to prison well into his 40s.

"It was one moment with kids," she said. "It doesn't need to define their whole lives."

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