They have raging hormones, backward social skills and, at best, poor judgment. Most have confessed their sexual crimes to family members, clergy or school counselors. Many of the teenagers — who are often younger than 15 — are prosecuted as adults.
They plead guilty to lesser charges to avoid a trial and the possibility of a lifetime in prison, and so they become registered sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
Most of these teens have committed a sexual crime against a family member. A few had sex with a younger girlfriend. Some were connected to child pornography.
Now, a group of conservative Republican lawmakers, responding to years of tearful appeals from the teens’ families, wants to ease the laws governing young sex offenders and give judges back some of the power they lost a decade ago to decide the fate of the teens.
“These boys are having the book thrown at them,” said Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa.
“These are immature children, and they made some pretty dumb decisions. There’s no way I’m saying they shouldn’t have consequences. But they need to be appropriate consequences.”
The legislators acknowledge that appearing to be soft on sex offenders will be a hard sell, and may not win points among voters. But they say teens, primarily boys, who make one mistake should not pay for it the rest of their lives.
Three of five bills on the issue are scheduled for legislative hearings this week, including measures to allow judges to decide whether firsttime, nonviolent sex offenses should be tried in adult court and lower the age of consent to 13 from 15 years old.
In addition to dozens of families, supporters include adult and juvenile probation officers, judges, treatment providers and police. But not the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
Last month, lobbyist Mark Faull told a special legislative committee, of which Johnson was co-chairwoman, that the panel’s efforts were misguided and lacked input from victims. During earlier hearings, Faull defended the county attorney’s prosecution of teen sex offenders and said most of the criticism appeared to focus on probation.
Under the terms of their probation, the teens likely cannot live at home or even visit there because of the presence of younger siblings. Some of them are living in homeless shelters or transitional housing like the East Valley Men’s Center.
They cannot be anywhere children are, including movie theaters, parks, shopping malls, fast-food restaurants and their old schools.
They must attend group therapy, which can include grown men convicted of rape and other violent sex offenses, and discuss their crimes and fantasies as part of their treatment.
They must continue their education or go to work, keep regular appointments with their probation officer, take periodic polygraphs and DNA tests.
Rep. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, was skeptical about the need for reform until she heard the stories of some of the young offenders. Now, she’s sponsoring a bill to require annual probation reviews for sex offenders under 25 years old.
“How is this going to help the young person adjust and get back into society if they can’t have contact with family and they’re put in a homeless shelter?” Gray said.
“I’m not sure what we’ve gained if not pushing them further into behavior that they normally would not continue in,” she said. “We need to bring them back into normal behavior, instead of sticking them out there with the wolves.”
In addition to anecdotal evidence, proponents cite research showing that juvenile sex offenders generally outgrow their behavior and are less likely to reoffend than those who commit sex crimes as adults.
They also note a variety of neurological studies showing that the brain’s frontal lobe, which among other things controls impulse and judgment, is still developing throughout adolescence.
And they note that more teens — and younger teens — are becoming sexually active. About 28 percent of Arizona ninth-graders and twothirds of high school seniors say they’ve had sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2006 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
“We are creating our own group of homeless, sex-offending youth,” said Chris Phillis, juvenile division chief for the county public defender’s office.
“I think we’re creating a crime that really doesn’t exist. We’ve labeled a 15-year-old for a relationship. And we’ve basically taken his future.”
In testimony last fall before the Joint Legislative Committee on Youthful Sex Offenders, which ultimately recommended the bills, sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell said the county attorney’s office doesn’t go after youngsters who have consensual sex. The teens they prosecute, she said, are predatory and deviant.
But some East Valley family members say that’s not so, citing cases of young men who are registered sex offenders on lifetime probation for having sex with underage girlfriends who did not want them arrested.
Voters in 1996 allowed juveniles over 14 years old to be prosecuted as adults for various violent crimes. The next year the Legislature broadened the law to include additional crimes, and give prosecutors the power to transfer teens 14 and older to the adult system.
Since then, thousands of teens have been “direct filed” to the adult court system without a juvenile court hearing. Last year, 140 Maricopa County teens were prosecuted as adults, including about one-third who had no juvenile record.
A juvenile who’s been prosecuted in adult court can still receive treatment and services with other teens. But that stops on his 18th birthday, when he’s thrown into adultonly programs.
“You turn 18 and it’s like your whole world changes,” said Therese Wagner, a division director overseeing sex offenders for the county’s adult probation department. “There’s such a range of offenders within that population.”
The department is working on separating first-time, nonviolent offenders, under 25, from older ones in treatment programs. One of Johnson’s bills would require it.
Defense attorney Dan Raynak said he’s seeing a growing number of young sex offender cases cross his desk, kids as young as 14 with no prior records and just one alleged misstep. One boy has been in detention since May.
“It’s good for business,” Raynak said, “but I don’t think it’s good for society.”
What: Senate Judiciary Committee meeting
When: 1:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Hearing Room 1, State Senate, 1700 W. Washington St., Phoenix
Information: Call Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, (602) 926-3160, Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, (602) 926-3376, or Rep. Rick Murphy, RGlendale, (602) 926-3255.
Youthful sex offender bills
• SB142: Lowers the age of consent to 13, as a defense for certain sex offenses if the defendant is less than two years older, and 15 if the defendant is no more than three years older.
• SB1426: Defines a “youthful sex offender,” and exempts them from mandatory sentencing, registration and community notification.
• SB1628: Requires juvenile sex offenders who are in treatment to be with similar offenders, including age and maturity level.
• HB2777: Requires annual probation review for all juvenile sex offenders prosecuted as adults.
• HB2778: Allows juvenile court judges to sentence teens to probation until they’re 25 years old, with the option of transferring the case to adult court if the youth violates probation after he turns 18.