We frequently make fun of the ill-conceived and sometimes zany measures cooked up at the Arizona Legislature. But there are times when these same state lawmakers take a serious look at an emotionally charged but critically important issue and withstand verbal slingshots and arrows to propose the right changes.
The question of how to prosecute juvenile sex offenders certainly falls into this category, and we have to admire the courage of Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, and some of her colleagues to suggest Arizona should be treating some of these crimes as redeemable mistakes instead of evil acts to be punished for the rest of a teenager’s life.
The sexual assault of a child is one of the most offensive crimes imaginable, given the long-lasting trauma to a young victim’s psyche and our biological imperative to protect and to shelter our vulnerable offspring. Even the most hardened criminals will shun and ostracize child molesters.
But not every instance of inappropriate sexual contact between juveniles represents a predatory crime of the strong attacking the weak. Children have “played doctor” throughout history to satisfy their curiosity about the human body. And expanded overt sexual messages through the media and other societal vehicles has resulted in consensual touching and more advanced activity at ages once considered unthinkable.
Unfortunately, our zeal to weed out serial predators at the earliest opportunity has created a climate in which every kind of sexual offense gets lumped into the same category. Prosecutors, under enormous political pressure to notch convictions and to fulfill victim rights, have been given unfettered power to turn what should be tempered lessons about appropriate behavior into lifelong millstones and scarlet letters.
Last year, a special legislative committee co-chaired by Johnson gathered evidence that far too many teenagers are being charged as adults for relatively minor cases. Once in a regular court, juveniles and their parents face an unbearable decision: Strike a plea bargain and be subjected to lifetime felon probation and sex offender registration, or fight the charges and risk a conviction that would carry a prison sentence of decades.
Under the law, county prosecutors are the sole arbiters of whether the accused will be charged as a juvenile or an adult, raising legitimate concerns about the need for an independent check.
As a result of the committee’s work, the Legislature is considering a bill that would give judges some authority to move cases back to juvenile court when the circumstances are appropriate. A second bill would require juvenile sex offenders to receive treatment with others of the same age, instead of being thrown into adult programs where exposure to serious offenders is more likely to corrupt young minds than to rehabilitate them.
Tribune columnist Bill Richardson issued a proper note of caution Feb. 16 when he reminded us that there are evil predators among us even at young ages. But Senate bills 1365 and 1628 seek to separate those crimes from instances in which the infraction was a result of unbalanced hormones, uninformed exploration or horseplay that goes a little too far. In those cases, our kids can be taught the proper methods of behavior without inflicting a lifetime of punishment and shame.