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Bill would allow charges for juvenile sex offenders

By Seth Burkett 340-2355

DECATUR — Proposed legislation could close a gap in the state sex abuse statute that allows young offenders to face little or no criminal charges.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who introduced the bill Tuesday, said a Decatur police investigator, Sgt. Terry White, brought the matter to his attention.

The bill would allow prosecutors to charge offenders between the ages of 12 and 16 who sexually abuse a child at least four years younger than they are with second-degree sex abuse, a Class C felony.

It would also make abuse of a child less than 12 years old by a person 16 or older prosecutable as first-degree sex abuse, a Class B felony.

As an investigator for the Special Victim's Unit, White said he seldom encounters cases in which he feels a young offender should be prosecuted, but when he does, little can be done.

Under current law, rape or sodomy cases involving offenders under 16 can be prosecuted as sexual misconduct, a Class A misdemeanor. Sexual contact that does not involve intercourse or deviant intercourse can only be tried as harassment, a Class C misdemeanor.

"After seeing a couple of these cases come up, we discussed it with the leadership at the police department and district attorney's office. Then we sent a letter to Arthur Orr," White said.

White said the letter he wrote in January outlined points he would like to see addressed. It served as the basis for the proposed legislation.

"I think it's an absolute travesty that there's no law on the books already to address this issue," said Orr. "With the highly sexualized society that we have today, I think it's needed to protect children. (White has) had two cases in the last few years, and if it's happening there in Decatur, it's happening elsewhere."

White and Orr stressed that they do not believe the law would be used to prosecute children for sexual experimentation.

"All the people in law enforcement know about prosecutorial discretion," Orr said. "If it's two children in sort of a sexual exploration, rather than molestation, prosecutors aren't going to prosecute."

That is a key reason the bill stipulates the victim must be four years younger than the offender.

A 15-year-old knows better than to molest a 6-year-old and shouldn't be able to escape punishment because of a loophole in the law, Orr said.

Prosecution could alter the course of an adolescent offender's life for the better, White said.

"Kids are charged every day with burglary. They're charged with all sorts of crimes that are felonies," White said. "I think they (sexual abusers) need to be arrested and put into the juvenile system and hopefully correct the situation before they become an adult and become a habitual sex offender."

"I'm going to push it," Orr said. "If it protects one child or straightens out a perpetrator and gets him in counseling, keeps him from harming another child, it's been worth it all."

The bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and White is expected to testify before the committee about the bill.

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