Age Inappropriate

A casual fling can earn a lifetime label as a sex offender.

"He came over every night after that for a couple of weeks. It worked out fine until he was busted by his aunt sneaking out." The boy's family also found explicit letters. Although the writer signed them only with a 'T,' it didn't take a genius to figure out who it was.

All of Tina's previous boyfriends had been her age or older. A few had been abusive. (The only blot on her criminal record involved a misdemeanor assault on a boyfriend in 1991. She says she was defending herself, and the courts seem to have agreed; she never served any time for the incident.) Even while the relationship with her teenage neighbor was happening, she knew Timothy was awfully young. But that was part of the appeal, too.

"I think I decided to go with him because he was safe," Tina says from her residence in the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility in Cañon City, where she will spend the next four years. "He wasn't abusive, and he'd never be able to be abusive."

Anthony Camera
Jill McFadden is program administrator for the state's 
Sex Offender Management Board.
Anthony Camera
Jill McFadden is program administrator for the state's Sex Offender Management Board.

Although statutory-rape cases are not common, they do come up regularly. "We get one or two a year, at least," says Kevin Flesch, an Englewood attorney. State public defenders confirm that rate. Both say the Internet, where liaisons can be arranged under false pretenses, has accelerated the number of cases.

Prosecutors are often sympathetic toward young defendants. Lawyers agree that an eighteen-year-old with a fourteen-year-old girlfriend whose mother discovers their relationship will probably not be charged with a felony sexual assault on a child. Many cases are pleaded down to misdemeanors, at which point the defendant is more likely to receive a sentence of probation than prison.

Yet defense attorneys point out that such good-looking deals can be insidious. That's because even after agreeing to be charged with a lesser sex crime, young people who participated in consensual sex -- whose only real error, in some instances, was not checking identification -- are still labeled as sex offenders.

The designation is loaded. For starters, it usually means the person must register as a sexual offender, placing his name on a public list that paints him as a social deviant, no matter the details of his crime. Being tagged a sex offender almost always guarantees mandatory participation in a sex-offender treatment program. (While the facts that appear in this story -- times, dates, details of incidents -- are all true, the names of people accused of sexual abuse have been changed. This was done at the request of state Department of Corrections officials, who explain, convincingly, that other inmates often assault or kill convicted sex offenders once their offense is known among the general prison population.)

As more research is done into the psychology of sexual offenders, their treatment has become increasingly restrictive. The first of thirteen Guiding Principles for the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board's handbook is stark: "Sexual offending is a behavioral disorder which cannot be 'cured.'" Even "successful treatment," the handbook continues, "cannot permanently eliminate the risk that sex offenders may repeat their offenses."

As a result, the treatment of sex offenders has become more like managing a chronic disease, such as alcohol or diabetes, than setting a broken leg. There is no rehabilitation; the sex offender is always considered to be on the verge of committing another crime. The treatment has many facets, but the first rule of managing the sex offender is simple: Don't let him out of your sight.

With that in mind, treatment programs are rigorous and time-consuming by design. Defense lawyers argue that they are also nearly impossible to get out of. "It's horrible," says Flesch. "I've never actually seen anyone go through a program." Failure to comply with the program often means failure to complete probation -- which, in turn, lands the defendant in prison.

Another complaint is that the treatments are blunt instruments. Although the programs are referred to by providers and the courts as "offense-specific treatments" -- that is, the therapy is supposed to address a convict's specific deviance -- in reality, there is little variation in treatment.

Experts say there is good reason for this. Jill McFadden, program administrator for the Sex Offender Management Board, explains that studies show that a person who commits a sex crime against a child is more likely to also commit an offense against an adult, and vice-versa. Because a deviant's urges can go in more than one direction, the treatment must be broad: A sex offender is a sex offender is a sex offender.

But the therapy can also seem misapplied. A young man who's had sex with a girl he assumed was his peer can find himself comparing stories with a middle-aged man who rapes kindergarten students -- even although there is an obvious difference between the severity of the crimes.

In July 2002, Tony Rodriguez had just turned nineteen. Already a juvenile offender -- mostly drug charges -- with a long history in the social-services system, he was being held in the Foote Center, a juvenile facility in Arapahoe County. While there, he hooked up with a girl who was also being held at the center.

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The criminal justice system has also been getting ridiculously tough lately on adult men who marry teenage girls.>>>>>click onto

Not like the good old days when it didn't even matter how much older the groom was than the teenage bride.  So long as nobody was being forced into anything they didn't want to be in, the marriage was just as legal as two same-aged sweethearts.>>>>

Eric Dexheimer?  You should do your next story on something like this.  That is, adult grooms marrying teen brides.  In the United States of America, of course.  In non-Mormon and non-Muslim communities, that is.  Forget about the Middle East.  Too many wackjobs over there.