Two state legislative committees will tackle four more bills Thursday to ease laws on young sex offenders, following the narrow defeat of two measures because of an absent panel member.
Impassioned pleas from families and testimony from Maricopa County Superior Court’s presiding judge Monday failed to sway three Republican senators, including Chuck Gray of Mesa, to raise the age of consent and give judges, rather than prosecutors, authority to sentence sex offenders who committed their crimes as juveniles.
More families are expected to testify Thursday when the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee considers two bills by Chairwoman Linda Gray, R-Glendale, including a measure requiring teens to receive treatment with similar-aged youth.
And Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Mesa, has scheduled two other measures for hearings in his House Judiciary Committee, including a bill to require annual probation reviews for teens.
“The judicial system has come in and really been very punitive to what I would consider a child at age 14,” Gray said. “The penalties are far heavier than what the crime was.”
At issue are young people who are prosecuted in the adult court system for sex crimes they committed when they were juveniles, some as young as 14.
Most have fondled a family member and others have had consensual sex with a younger teen. State law allows prosecutors to file charges in adult court without first going through a juvenile court judge.
An unlikely coalition of conservative Republicans, led by Mesa Sen. Karen Johnson, and Democrats want these young people handled in the juvenile court system, or at least given an opportunity to get out from under harsh adult terms, which can include lifetime probation and sex-offender registration.
The legislators argue that brain development research and studies of young sex offenders show the juvenile offenders are likely to outgrow their behavior and live normal lives with no more victims.
The terms and conditions of their probation, however — including living with and attending counseling sessions with older, violent sex offenders — separates them from their families and schools them in deviant behaviors, Johnson and other supporters say. And that’s if they haven’t violated their probation.
Keimond Brown recently spoke with his young daughters for the first time in eight months. He’s been in jail since turning himself in last May after running rather than face a probation violation.
Brown, now 24, pleaded guilty to having consensual sex with a 13-year-old when he was 15. A foster child, he’d been living with the girl’s family, said his fiancé, Ebony Richards. Her mother reported Brown to police.
Under the terms of his probation, Richards said, he will never be able to hold his daughters, use a computer or wear shorts. When he’s released from prison in a year, the toys and movies in their home will have to be approved by a probation officer before he can move back in.
“He’s helped me raise them every step of the way,” Richards said Tuesday. “He is a father beyond belief.”
During testimony Monday before the Senate Judiciary committee, Mark Faull of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office defended prosecutors’ handling of these cases and warned lawmakers that the bills go too far.
Committee chairman Chuck Gray, a former Mesa police officer, agreed. He said there are other ways to ease probation for young sex offenders who truly deserve another chance.
Both HB1425 and HB1426 failed on 3-3 votes, absent Sen. Albert Hale, D-Window Rock, who has co-sponsored some of the youthful sex-offender legislation. He had a family emergency.
Voters in 1996 allowed juveniles over 14 to be prosecuted as adults for certain violent crimes.
The following year, the Legislature broadened the law and gave prosecutors the power to send teens 14 and older to the adult system for a wider array of offenses, including sex crimes.
Judge Barbara Mundell, the county’s presiding judge, told the committee that mandatory sentencing laws in these cases tie the hands of judges.
Under the old system, juvenile court judges decided whether to send the case to adult court, based on psychological evaluations and other information gathered during a hearing.
Johnson said prosecutors have abused their power and need judges to step back into the mix.
“What’s being done to the children is just so egregious,” she said. “That’s why it’s important that a judge have some discretion.”
Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee, 8 a.m. Thursday, Hearing Room 3
House Judiciary Committee, 9 a.m. Thursday, Hearing Room 4
State Capitol, 1700 W. Washington St., Phoenix
Youthful sex offender legislation:
• SB1365: Allows judges to transfer the cases of certain young sex offenders, who have been prosecuted as adults, to the juvenile court system.
• 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.