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Parents of Young Sex Offenders Say Arizona's Laws Too Strict

Doug Ramsey, KTAR, October 30, 2006

A panel of lawmakers and law enforcers is looking into the touchy subject of youthful sex offenders.

They're hearing from parents who say when they try to get help for their children, the kids end up being branded for life.

Elizabeth McDonald's 13-year-old son talked his 7-year-old cousin into sexual experimentation which led to him fondling her privates. There was no intercourse. When the girl's mother took her for counseling, the law required the police to be notified.

"Ten weeks later, we received a letter in the mail from the Maricopa County Prosecutor's Office that he was going to be prosecuted as an adult."

McDonald was unaware how strict Arizona's laws have become regarding sexual contact with children. She advised her son to cooperate.

"I told him that he had to tell the truth and explain exactly what he had done and that he had to take responsibility and be honest. That they would understand. And that he was 14 and that we would do whatever was necessary. Counseling, individual, family, any kind of thing that we needed to do to take care of this problem. We did not realize at the time that he was providing a confession that would condemn him as an adult sex offender for the rest of his life," says McDonald.

Though it was a first offense, and a psychologist identified him as a low risk to re-offend, Mcdonald's son was charged as an adult child molester.

The McDonalds were given no real choice. They could accept a plea bargain that required lifetime probation and registration as a sex offender, or risk going to trial and facing a 15-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.

Today at age 19, as part of probation, the young man lives in a halfway house for drug abusers, sex offenders and other criminals.

"Our son files a detailed schedule every week with probation which he may not deviate from or risk being immediately taken to jail. He is under curfew every day and may not even socialize with the residents where he lives. He is demoralized and devalued as a human being. He has few, if any prospects, for any real future."

Other families told similar stories. Laura Jo Richens says her son admitted his problem, sought counseling, and did everything that was asked of him.

"How many of you would like a poor decision you made at the age of 13 follow you around for the rest of your life?," asks Richens.

At one point, the panel was told there are 100,000 underage Arizona children who are sexually active and under current law, they could all be charged with sex crimes.

Mesa lawmaker Karen Johnson, who chairs the committee, says in their zeal to punish child molesters, the legislature has gone too far.

Johnson would like to see the law changed to prohibit prosecution of children as adults for non-violent or non-forcible sex crimes.

However, Johnson admits doing so will be politically difficult if not impossible to achieve.

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