Monday, February 18, 2008

How to deal with the married sex offender?

Here, from my files, comes to you a particularly thorny workplace question of ethics. I'm struggling with it, and would like to float it here, for everyone to think about, and perhaps even a few intrepid souls to comment upon.

For those of you who do not know, or who are simply a few months behind, I am a newspaper reporter in the state of Wyoming.

Let me give you something of a background in the law, as well as I am versed in it, and then I'll dive right into the confusing contours and particulars of this situation.

The law.
Again, caveat emptor: I have a deep interest in the law, but I'm not lawyer. I've only lived in Wyoming for about seven weeks now, so I'm still trying to figure out the subtle differences in the law between here and Iowa, my former residence.

In Wyoming, there are two classifications of sex offenders, with three tiers in each classification index. The first index is how long an offender must register their residence, the second is how likely they are to re-offend.

Both are now set by the state. Previously, the risk of re-offending was determined by the local judge.

Offenders are required to register for 15 or 25 years, or for the rest of their lives. Registration involves going to the local Sheriff and providing print information, data on vehicles owned and operated, address of residence, and posing for a photo.

All of this information, plus the title of the statute that the offender was convicted under, is entered onto a website that anyone can access. If offenders are classified as Type H or Type J, the Sheriff is also required to "paper."

Type G offenders usually fall under the 15 year registration requirement, and are considered the lowest risk to re-offend. Type H offenders usually fall under the 25 year registration requirement, and are considered a moderate risk. Type J offenders usually fall under the lifetime registration requirement, and are considered so likely to re-offend that the state decided to skip the letter "I" in the matrix.

The risk assessment -- which determines how likely a given offender is to re-offend -- is performed by the state Attorney General's office (or maybe it's DCI, which is like the state FBI), although it used to be done by the judge, remember?

The registration requirement -- 15 years, 25 years, or life -- is determined solely by the statute under which the offender was charged, and the ages of those involved (more on this later). It is black and white, insomuch as that it can be applied by a monkey.

Now, if an offender is convicted out of state and subsequently moves to Wyoming, the state must try and figure out under which Wyoming law the offender would have been convicted here. Wyoming has unusual sexual crimes statutes, and is in the process of modernizing them, which means that these transitions can be difficult.

When a new offender moves into the county and registers, the Sheriff is required to "paper and notify" if the offender is in Type H or J. Papering involves going to every residence within 750 feet of the offender's residence and giving them a flier with that information I described above (sans fingerprints), as well as notifying county schools, libraries, day cares, churches, &c.

Finally in the law department: for those of you keeping score at home, it apparently can sometimes be a crime to reveal the identity of a victim of sexual assault.

The specifics.
A man and wife, and their four (methinks) children recently moved into town. The woman works at a local eatery, and I'm unsure as to the man's occupation.

The woman is a convicted sex offender. She was convicted in Utah, in 2004, of unlawful sexual activity with a minor, a felony. In 2006, she successfully lobbied the court of original jurisdiction to have the conviction reduced to attempted unlawful sexual activity with a minor, a class "a" misdemeanor.

The victim is now her husband, and two of her four children apparently are by him.

She is considered, by the state of Wyoming, to be a Type J offender: most likely to re-offend. She also has a lifetime duty to register. This is because -- as well as we were able to figure out at the newspaper -- Wyoming made their classifications about her based upon her original conviction, not the subsequently reduced charge.

I suspect that if someone were to run her through NCIC or do a localized search in Utah, only the misdemeanor conviction would show up. But I don't have NCIC, and I couldn't quickly discover how to do a localized search in Utah.

As a Type J, the Sheriff was required to paper town. As a matter of policy, when the Sheriff papers, the newspaper runs a brief story about the offender.

Now comes the woman, angry with the Sheriff for papering, because of her subsequently reduced charge. She delivers a letter to the editor to the newspaper, announcing that she was convicted of "attempted unlawful sexual activity with a minor" and is now married to him. There's no reason to fear her, is the clear intimation.

In discussions at work, several views were raised. One was that, because the woman is now married to the victim, she is less of a risk. I doubt that marriage is such a powerful force, and said as much. But I wholeheartedly agreed that the woman should have the opportunity to present her case to the people who would shortly be reading about her in the newspaper.

But the letter clearly identifies the victim of the crime: her husband. As best as I can understand the Wyoming statute (scroll down to 6-2-310) on the topic, it is illegal to release the name of the offender or the victim of a sexual assault up to trial, and perhaps beyond. A minor victim's name can not be released indefinitely.

Now, I'm not positively sure that the husband is 18. Everyone seems to be assuming that he is, but I don't know the legal age to marry in Utah, either, so I'm worried that it is a flawed assumption.

Alright, well, we would have to severely curtail this woman's ability to make her case in the public forum, if we are to refuse to allow her to identify the fact that she is now married to the victim, and has children by him. Again, while I disagree, a good number of people think that the fact that they are married makes a significant difference.

So, what to do? Should the newspaper even be running such notices (i.e., victim and offender are now married; in my county there are 14 registered sex offenders and beside the woman we here consider, two others, both men, are now married to their victims)? Our hands our tied in this case: we don't have time to come up with a new policy before press time. And I don't think we should.

Are we destroying this woman's life? I imagine we will be responsible for causing a good deal of harm not only to her life, but to the lives of those in her family, as well as the eatery where she works. Regardless of what people think about her being married, I've already thrice heard "Eww, that was a sex offender that waited on me?"

And what about the other two persons in the county, the two men, who are now married to their one-time victims? Before my arrival here, one of them was papered and subsequently written up in the newspaper, while the other was not.

(The second was not because he was convicted before the most recent change in the law. When the law changed, he was reclassified as a more serious offender, and required to begin registering again after his original 15 year registration had concluded. He is still married to the woman he was convicted of assaulting more than 15 years ago. He has not yet been papered because he is suing the state over his reclassification, and the Sheriff is waiting on the suit to complete.)

Come to think of it, should newspapers be printing any of these things? Should offenders have to register at all? I wonder if they shouldn't just be left in prison until they have been sufficiently treated to satisfy the state that they are not likely to re-offend? I don't have any good answers, I'm afraid.

So, what of the woman married to the man that she was convicted of assaulting when he was a minor? If the ages make any difference to your analysis, and they have mine, here is what little I know:

Reading the date of her conviction and her current age, I figured that the woman was 25 at the time of the incident. Reading the way that the Utah law she was originally convicted under lines up against the Wyoming law that she was classified under, I figure he was 14 or 15 (Utah law: 14 or 15, Wyoming law: 13-15 -- for Wyoming law, see here, under 6-2-315(a)(i)). However, the woman claims she was 20 and he was 15 or 16 (hearsay, but a considerably smaller margin than by my back-of-the-napkin figures).

So I'm more or less lost about how this should be handled. Anyone? Please examine everything here that you care to, including my reading of the law, and newspaper policies, and where I like to put commas in sentences. I'm really at a loss to come to any conclusion that I feel halfway comfortable with.

There are a lot of facts to marshal here, and I hope I've gotten them all right. Take especially my interpretations of the law with much salt, as well as my math on the ages above. But even if my facts are somewhere wrong, I felt that this was an important enough issue to raise anyway.


Lacey said...

Warning: This comment is VERY long! :)

I have no idea if what I'm going to tell you helps in any way, but none-the-less I'll share what little I know. I worked at the Boys and Girls Home for a part of one summer in college, and I was assigned to work in the sex offender unit. Basically, I was one of the people who monitored boys who were sex offenders but who were minors. Before I started, we went through a staff training, which included the thinking patterns of sex offenders. Sex offenders, we learned, have a mental problem. They go through a pattern of thinking about having sex with minors (and this can include children as little as 1 or 2 years!) over and over (I won't get into the details). Now, there was a psychologist at the Boys and Girls Home who evaluated the boys, and out of the probably 8 or 9 boys that were in MY unit (which was a less severe sex offender unit than another unit of boys in the same building I worked at, of which I also occasionally worked in), I had overheard that only 1 of the boys was a "true" sex offender in the sense that they continuously thought about having sex with little children. I have no idea how many out of the severe unit (not my assigned unit) would classify as true sex offenders.

It's hard to say what the newspaper should do. The sad thing is usually the only thing that prevents a "true" sex offender from offending again is the threat of being arrested and taken to prison. Sex offenders tend to think only of themselves and can not comprehend others' feelings. Also, in many cases (I'm not sure how many) there is a connection of the sex offender having been sexually abused as a child.

I'm definitely not a psychologist, so for all I know all this that I'm saying might be out-dated, but at the time, this is what I learned.

I had the option of reading the cases on the boys that I worked with, but I chose not to. I knew it would taint how I treated my clients, and I really did not want to do that. I knew they had sexually offended, and I felt that was all I needed to know.

The boy who I heard was the "true" sex offender in my unit, I would NEVER have expected! That's one scary thing about it. That particular boy was very articulate and was well-behaved. For the most part, he would follow the rules set before him, and he appeared to prefer having staff's approval and company over his peers'. He did not strike me as "odd" in any way, and if I had met him in public, I wouldn't have believed he could commit a crime of any kind, let alone be a sex offender!

So, although it's hard to say what the newspaper should do, I guess I would lean more towards the aspect of the paper printing who are sex offenders, and not printing the victims, even if they are married to them. Sometimes people do just make a mistake, and they may never re-offend, but I think the experts have the experience to more accurately judge who will re-offend and who will not, and the scary part is, the only way to tell is when they get CAUGHT doing it again. I'm sure many times it happens and they do not get caught. Obviously this sucks for the people who will never re-offend, and who are great citizens and learned from their mistake, but sex offenders can be very good at hiding their intentions and at fooling people into trusting them, and therefore can be extremely dangerous.

Saying all this, I still have to comment on the fact that it IS a mental disorder, and it's hard for the general public to separate the person from the crime. That's the big reason why I didn't read the boys' cases, though, so that I could try and keep it separate. In other words, would I personally be polite and treat a sex offender with respect? Definitely! If I knew someone was a sex offender, i would hope I would realize that they may have just made a mistake early in life, or that they have a mental disorder that they really can't control. Would I leave a child in my care with a sex offender? Never, even if I did know them better than I knew myself. I don't think they should be shunned from society, but I do believe the laws set into place are there for good reason. Also, I'm not sure if this is still the case, but it was my understanding that part of why the sex offender issue is so hard for people, is that psychologists have still not found a counseling technique or practice that works in preventing sex offenders from re-offending, minus what I mentioned about working with the sex offender to break their thinking cycle and threatening them with what would happen if they acted out on their thoughts. Well, that's enough rambling for now. I'm sure there's a lot of research that has happened since the time I was at the Boys and Girls Home.

Casandra said...

I know you wrote this a while ago, and I'm sorry for my late response. I am interested to know, however, what the paper decided to do. If you could give your readers an update, it would be appreciated.
I like Lacey's comment - and her point that psychologists have not yet figured out a way to deal with sex offenders. I personally do not think that threatening them with consequences helps because if they were afraid of the consequences, they would not have committed a crime in the first place.
Anyway, I think that the laws to make sex offenders register are there for a reason. To me, it doesn't much matter that this woman is now married to the victim. Even if she was 20 and he was 15 and even though they're married now, I still think there has to be something seriously wrong with this woman to have pursued any sort of relationship with someone so young.
I'm sure the most common defense (and almost certainly used in this case) would be that they were "in love". Well, I can't help feeling that if it was love, it could have waited until the boy reached the age of consent.
Like I said, the incident shows at the very least, a severe lack of character on her part. There is a reason it's against the law. There is something wrong with an adult being sexually attracted to a child. And since she at least once was attracted to a child, who is to say that she won't be again? I think sex offenders should register, just in case.
As for what the paper should do, I'm kind of surprised at you, Jon. Sympathy for this woman is a very emotional response. I would say that logically, she is a sex offender and with that should come the penalties attached to that status. As you mentioned, the two other sex offenders in your county were not given special privileges and neither should she.