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Is Ricky Really a Sex Offender?

California's registry for life may soon include promiscuous kids

Hanna Ingber Win, lacitybeat.com, February 20, 2008

When Ricky was 16, he went to a teen club and met a girl named Amanda, who said she was the same age. They hit it off and were eventually having sex. At the time Ricky thought it was a pretty normal high school romance.

Two years later, Ricky is a registered sex offender, and his life is destroyed.

Amanda turned out to be 13. Ricky was arrested, tried as an adult, and pleaded guilty to the charge of lascivious acts with a child, which is a class D felony in Iowa. It is not disputed that the sex was consensual, but intercourse with a 13-year-old is illegal in Iowa.

Ricky was sentenced to two years probation and 10 years on the Iowa online sex offender registry. Ricky and his family have since moved to Oklahoma, where he will remain on the state's public registry for life.

Being labeled a sex offender has completely changed Ricky's life, leading him to be kicked out of high school, thrown out of parks, taunted by neighbors, harassed by strangers, and unable to live within 2,000 feet of a school, day-care center or park. He is prohibited from going to the movies or mall with friends because it would require crossing state borders, which he cannot do without permission from his probation officer. One of Ricky's neighbors called the cops on him, yelled and cursed at him, and videotaped him every time he stepped outside, Ricky said.

"It affects you in every way," he said. "You're scared to go out places. You're on the Internet, so everybody sees your picture."

His mother, Mary, said the entire family has felt the ramifications of Ricky being labeled a sex offender. His younger brother has been ridiculed at school and cannot have friends over to the house; his stepfather has been harassed; the parents' marriage has been under tremendous pressure; and strangers used to show up at their door to badger the family. One neighbor came to the house and told Mary he wasn't going to leave them alone until they took their "child rapist" away, so they moved, she said.

California is currently deciding if it will comply with a federal sex offender act that would put adolescent sex offenders as young as 14 on a national public registry, like the one Ricky is on in Oklahoma. Supporters say the act would improve public safety, but critics argue it would stigmatize thousands of teenagers. The law, called the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, would require states to submit information on youth deemed delinquent in juvenile court of aggravated sexual abuse to the registry.

Juveniles affected by the act would range from those who used force or drugs to rape another person, to those who have had any sexual contact with a child under the age of 12. If a 14-year-old touches an 11-year-old's penis, the 14-year-old would be eligible for the public registry.

Human rights advocates and even some prominent sex crime prevention groups warn this is one more act in a long list of sex-offender laws across the country that appeals to voters but is ineffective and counterproductive. They argue that almost all sex offender laws in the United States fail to solve the problem of sex crimes because they drive people underground, block paths to treatment and focus on a high-profile case, like that of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who was abducted from a Florida department store and killed in 1981, and miss the fuller picture of sexual violence.

A few heinous, high-profile sex crimes capture the media's attention, and the result is more Draconian sex-offender laws, such as Megan's Law and Jessica's Law, said Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch, which recently released a report on sex-offender laws called "No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the U.S."

"We have created these laws and we apply them to anyone convicted of a sex crime regardless of their risk to the community," Tofte said.

Megan's Law requires public registration for adult sex offenders. If Jessica's Law, approved by voters in 2006, overcomes challenges in court, it would prohibit adult registered sex offenders from living 2,000 feet within a school or park and require those paroled from prison to wear lifetime GPS monitors. Unlike the Adam Walsh Act, Megan's Law and Jessica's Law generally do not affect registered juveniles, according to California Deputy Attorney General Janet Neeley.

While the media focuses on the stories of the child being raped and killed by a stranger, the Human Rights Watch report states that 80-90 percent of the offenses against children are committed by someone the victim knows.

If California complies with the Adam Walsh Act, the law would be retroactive, and the offenders would be listed on the registry for life. They would be classified as Tier III offenders and forced to register with law enforcement authorities every three months, or risk being charged with a felony and going to prison for at least one year.

The act, sponsored by Wisconsin Republican Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. and 37 co-sponsors - including former Florida representative Mark Foley - was signed into law by President Bush on July 27, 2006, and gives states three years to comply or risk losing 10 percent of federal Byrne money, which are law enforcement grants worth $5 million in California. The Department of Justice is formulating the final guidelines.

Congressional co-sponsors of the law and crime-victim advocates have hailed the bill as an opportunity to improve community safety by increasing penalties for sex crimes, better tracking of sex offenders, and making it harder for predators to reach children on the Internet.

"The Adam Walsh Act intends to register convicted sexual offenders, 14 and older, who have committed the most violent sexual abuses," said California Congressman Ken Calvert, a Republican from Riverside, in an e-mail. "If a juvenile has committed such a crime, the safety of our community and children supersedes the rights of the juvenile who, at the age of 14, understands the difference between right and wrong."

A father pleas for harsh penalties

Child-protection advocates argue that it is more important to hold juvenile sex offenders responsible for their actions than to worry about them being stigmatized by the registry or punished too harshly.

"We have to put the safety of our kids before the civil rights of someone who's already proven they will hurt a kid," said Mark Zyla, who became an activist for tougher sex offender laws after his two daughters were sexually assaulted in separate instances. "Being on the registry doesn't keep people from rehabilitating; it doesn't keep them from getting a job. It may be more difficult, but that's part of the consequence of hurting a young child."

Zyla's daughter Amie was violently sexually assaulted by a 14-year-old, Joshua Wade, when she was eight. Wade was a family friend and attacked Amie, who is now 20, during a sleepover party at her house, Mark Zyla said. Wade was tried as a juvenile and sent to a juvenile detention center. But because his record was sealed, he was able to later get a job at a summer camp, where he went on to assault more young girls. He has since been sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The Zylas helped pass a law in their home state of Wisconsin to enable law enforcement officials to release information on juvenile sex offenders if they pose a threat to society. They then lobbied Congress to pass the federal Adam Walsh Act. If states comply with the Adam Walsh Act, Mark Zyla said, local law-enforcement agencies would know about juvenile sex offenders like Wade and be able to inform schools and places of employment.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives said registries significantly help them track down sex offenders. If they have an unsolved sex crime, they can take the description of the suspect, plug it into the database and look for a match, said Detective Diane Webb, a supervisor of LAPD's sex-offender registration and tracking program.

The DNA and registration databases enable detectives to clear old cases and find patterns of crime, said Detective Jesse Alvarado of LAPD's rape special section.

The registries also help inform the public, Webb said.

"Not only does registration give law enforcement a first place to look, it also provides information to the public," she said.

She added that people should be allowed to know if sex offenders live in their community so they can, at the very least, decide if they want to date them or have them baby-sit their children.

The detectives disagree on whether the registry should include juveniles, who commit 17 percent of all sex offenses and about a third of all sex offenses against children, according to the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. Alvarado said he thinks it would be helpful to have a database like the Adam Walsh one for juvenile offenders

"Giving us an ability to look for somebody would always be a good thing," Alvarado said.

Webb said she agreed with juvenile justice experts that juveniles should be treated differently from adults.

One of the reasons the law came into effect was because of the more than 100,000 missing or non-compliant sex offenders. They are part of the 603,000 registered sex offenders nationwide, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"When they're on the run and they're not compliant, they become more dangerous," Mark Zyla said. "They're not getting their treatment and they're free to do whatever they want."

Supporters also said juveniles would not be stigmatized for life because a section of the law stipulates that youth deemed delinquent in juvenile court can get off the registry after 25 years if they are not convicted of another sex crime and have successfully completed a sex offender treatment program.

However, juvenile justice advocates, public defenders and prominent sex crime prevention groups have criticized the law, arguing that it would make it harder for youth to reintegrate into society, further break from the tradition of treating children differently from adults, be ineffective, and cost the state millions.

"Imagine writing down the worst thing you ever did when you were a teenager, or an adult, and being forced to put that on a placard on your forehead. This is, in effect, what registration does to these youth," L.A. County Deputy Public Defender Maureen Pacheco wrote in an e-mail.

"They must disclose these offenses when they apply for school, when they apply for jobs, if they want to get licensed or bonded," she wrote. "In other words, in all the ways a youth might seek to become rehabilitated, we shut the door."

The case for leniency

Juvenile justice advocates said they fear the Adam Walsh Act would make it harder to rehabilitate young sex offenders because it would ostracize them from society. There is no direct research showing the psycho-social effects of registering on youth, say experts.

"But common sense would tell you that having your name, picture, and home address on the Internet as a sex offender at age 8, 12, or even 14 could be devastating in terms of peer relationships, community [relations], ability to stay in school, and involvement in church activities," said Dr. Barbara Bonner, an expert on sex offenses and co-director of the Adolescent Sex Offender Treatment Program at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

The law is counterproductive because young people are more likely to be rehabilitated and successful in the future if they get involved with social activities like sports, bands, choir, or a job, she said.

Juvenile justice advocates also criticize the law for treating and punishing youth as adults rather than focusing on rehabilitation. The basic concept of the juvenile justice system is to treat young people differently from adult offenders because they are considered less responsible for their actions and more receptive to rehabilitation and treatment.

Almost every state ensures that if a child is adjudicated or deemed delinquent - juvenile court does not convict youth - he or she does not have to submit information to a public registry, according to Tara Andrews of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national nonprofit comprised of governor-appointed advisory groups.

Andrews said she finds the Adam Walsh Act most troublesome because it "reaches out and grabs kids who were adjudicated as juveniles. The Adam Walsh Act sweeps in and says we still want these kids on the registry."

Critics also fear it will cost millions of dollars to follow and would not be worth the money the state might lose for not complying. If the federal Attorney General's office finds that California has not made a "good faith conduct" to comply with the Adam Walsh Act, the Attorney General can reduce the federal Byrne funds allocated to that jurisdiction for law enforcement resources.

"We think the cost of compliance might greatly outweigh the benefits of losing 10 percent of the Byrne funds," said Pacheco.

Critics fear the massive costs will include applying this law to a state as populated as California, complying with the federal classification system and DNA collection.

It costs more to enact a federal act than individual state laws because a federal law does not take into consideration a state's specific needs and resources, said Robert Coombs of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers and prevention programs.

It would also be costly because the categories the federal government uses to distinguish between different levels of sex crimes do not match the ones California uses. The federal act assigns sex offenders to a numbered level, while California uses other distinctions, such as "sexually violent predator." To comply, California would have to either run two concurrent leveling systems or completely revamp its present system, Coombs said.

Another cost would be gathering the DNA samples of individuals affected by the Adam Walsh Act. Adults and juveniles convicted of any felony or sex offense already have their DNA collected, but the cost for testing DNA samples has exceeded expectations. The Los Angeles Police Department needs $9.3 million to clear up a backlog of untested samples. Since the Adam Walsh Act is retroactive, it would require collection and analysis of DNA samples from adults and juveniles convicted before the DNA regulations, which did not start until 2004.

Supporters of the law argue the high cost of putting the act into effect is worth the safety of the community.

"There just is no higher purpose for government than keeping the public safe," said Will Smith, State Senator George Runner's spokesperson. The Antelope Valley Republican sponsored Jessica's Law.

Recidivism rates fail to prove the law effective or counterproductive, and both advocates and critics of the law use the statistics to support their arguments. Data from the Justice Department shows that 5.3 percent of male sex offenders released from prisons in 15 states in 1994 were rearrested for a new sex crime within three years of release. Juvenile justice advocates, on the other hand, look at recidivism rates among teenagers, which show that the rates of sexual re-offense are substantially lower, at 5 to 18 percent, than the rates for other delinquent behavior, which is 8 to 58 percent, according to the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth.

The California Sex Offender Management Board will evaluate the law and might recommend to the legislature and governor whether it should be complied with, according to board chair Suzanne Brown-McBride. The decision rests with Attorney General Jerry Brown, Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature. California is home to 90,000 registered adult sex offenders and 2,528 registered juvenile sex offenders.

"The state is reviewing the act and evaluating the potential impact it will have on the state," said Gareth Lacy, a Brown spokesman. "California has a long history of setting tough laws mandating sex-offender registration."

Runner will be watching the outcome. If California's current laws do not conform to the federal act, the state senator plans to introduce a bill.

Ricky is now 19 and trying to bring some normalcy back to his life. But that's practically impossible. In between monthly meetings with his probation officer, he's been trying to find a job.

However, employers haven't been eager to hire a registered sex offender. He wants to get a college degree, yet that, too, is problematic. He's worried his classmates would find him on the registry and start harassing him.

"I have to watch my back all of the time," he said. "Once people find out, they panic. They don't know the real story."

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