Saturday, December 1, 2007

Prosecuting kids as adults: Are laws too tough?

View the article here | Another Related Story from MSNBC


States rethinking, retooling juvenile sentencing laws after new research

(MSNBC) A generation after America decided to get tough on kids who commit crimes — sometimes locking them up for life — the tide may be turning.

States are rethinking and, in some cases, retooling juvenile sentencing laws. They’re responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

“It’s really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy,” says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. “People didn’t know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it.”

Juvenile crime is down, in contrast to the turbulent 1990s when politicians vied to pass laws to get violent kids off the streets. Now, in calmer times, some champion community programs for young offenders to replace punitive measures they say went too far.

“The net was thrown too broadly,” says Howard Snyder, director of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “When you make these general laws ... a lot of people believe they made it too easy for kids to go into the adult system and it’s not a good place to be.”

Some states are reconsidering life without parole for teens. Some are focusing on raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, while others are exploring ways to offer kids a second chance, once they’re locked up — or even before.

“There has been a huge sea change ... it’s across the country,” says Laurie Garduque, a program director at the MacArthur Foundation, which is heavily involved in juvenile justice reform.

Prosecutor: Laws are appropriate
Not everyone, though, believes there’s reason to roll back harsher penalties adopted in the 1990s.

“The laws that were changed were appropriate and necessary,” says Minnesota prosecutor James Backstrom. “We need to focus on the protecting the public — that’s No. 1. Then we can address the needs of the juvenile offenders.”

Each year about 200,000 defendants under 18 are sent directly or transferred to the adult system, known as criminal court, according to rough estimates.

Most end up there because of state laws that automatically define them as adults, due to their age or offense. Their ranks rose in the 1990s as juvenile crime soared and 48 states made it easier to transfer kids into criminal court, according to the juvenile justice center.

These changes gave prosecutors greater latitude (they could transfer kids without a judge’s permission), lowered the age or expanded the crimes that would make it mandatory for a case to be tried there.

Some states also adopted blended sentences in which two sanctions can be imposed simultaneously; if the teen follows the terms of the juvenile sentence, the adult sentence is revoked.

Laws toughened after wave of violence
The changes were ushered in to curb the explosion in violence — the teen murder arrest rate doubled from 1987 to 1993 — and to address mounting frustrations with the juvenile justice system.

A series of horrific crimes by kids rattled the nation: A sixth-grader shot and killed a stranger. A 12-year-old stomped and beat a younger playmate. Two grade-schoolers dropped a 5-year-old 14 stories to his death.

Some academics warned that a new generation of “superpredators” would soon be committing mayhem.

It never happened. Drug trafficking declined. An improved economy produced more jobs. And the rate of juvenile violent crime arrests plummeted 46 percent from 1994 to 2005, according to federal figures.

“When crime goes down, people have an opportunity to be more reflective than crisis-oriented and ask, ‘Was this policy a good policy?”’ Bilchik says.

The MacArthur Foundation said in a report to be released this month that about half the states are involved in juvenile justice reform.

And a national poll, commissioned by MacArthur and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and set for release at the same time, also found widespread public support for rehabilitating teens rather than locking them up.

Changes in laws
Some states have already begun to make changes.

  • In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter recently formed a juvenile clemency board to hear cases of kids convicted as adults. The head of the panel says it’s an acknowledgment that teens are different from adults — a point made in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed as juveniles. In 2006, the state replaced the juvenile life-without-parole sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
  • In California and Michigan, juvenile life without parole also is getting another look.
  • In Connecticut, lawmakers recently raised the age of juveniles to 18 for most cases; the changes will be phased in by 2010. Prosecutors can still transfer felonies to adult court.
  • In Illinois, a proposal to move 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to juvenile court passed in the state Senate and is pending in the House.
  • In Wyoming, talks are under way to shed a system that routinely charges and jails juveniles as adults even for minor offenses such as underage drinking.

Not all states are easing up.

Last summer, Rhode Island passed a law to send 17-year-old offenders to adult prisons in what was intended as a cost-cutting move. The measure, however, was quickly repealed after critics pointed out the plan probably would be more expensive.

One teen's situation
Many say the two systems are dramatically different: Juvenile justice emphasizes rehabilitation, adult courts focus on punishment.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, just 16 when he was charged with carjacking in Virginia, was locked up more than eight years, mostly in adult prisons.

“Of course it makes a difference if you’re 15, 16 or 17,” he says. “You’re not prepared to deal with it physically or emotionally. You’re trying to deal with being away from home. You’re trying to deal with the stress that comes with being in prison.”

Violence was a constant. “I got used to stuff most people I see today would never have to get used to — like somebody getting their head split open,” Betts says.

Betts had problems at first but gradually retreated into books, taught himself Spanish, wrote and published poetry.

When he was released two years ago at age 24, he won a college scholarship. Now engaged and planning to write a book, he knows he’s an exception: “People don’t come out of prison and make good,” he says.

Judge deals with kids as kids
In New York, Judge Michael Corriero is aware of those odds.

He presides over a special court in the adult system — it’s called the Manhattan Youth Part and is responsible for resolving the cases of 13- to 15-year-olds accused of serious crimes.

Corriero tries to steer as many kids as possible away from criminal court, a philosophy detailed in his book, “Judging Children as Children.”

“You take a 14-year-old and give him an adult sentence ... you’re taking him out of the community at his most vulnerable time,” he says. “If you put them in an institution, what is that kid going to look like in 10 years?”

Though juvenile crime tends to evoke images of gangs and murder, violent teens are the exception.

Studies show they account for about 5 percent of all juvenile arrests. Drugs, burglary, theft and other property crimes are among the more common reasons teens are prosecuted in adult courts.

Most of these kids, though, don’t end up in adult prison, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Critic: Adult prison system damaging for kids
But crossing into the adult world is damaging in itself, argues Liz Ryan, head of the group. About 7,500 juveniles are held in adult jails on any given day, she says, and that number probably reaches tens of thousands a year because of turnover.

Being in an adult jail, Ryan says, increases a kid’s risk of sexual abuse and assault. Educational opportunities are limited. And for those convicted of serious crimes, the damage can be irreparable.

“A lot of people say, ’So what? They get a slap on the wrist,”’ Ryan says. “Well, there is a consequence. ... You have a felony record that follows you the rest of your life.”

Mom worries about son
Sheila Montgomery worries about her son, Zack. He recently was released after serving 27 months for being an accomplice in the robbery of an Oregon convenience store. He had originally received a 7½-year term after falsely confessing to being the robber; he was re-sentenced after evidence revealed he wasn’t.

Montgomery says her son, now 17, will “forever be a felon. He can’t put the past behind him. It was hard for him to find work. A lot of people didn’t want to see him.”

Montgomery says she has no problem with “a little bit of jail time” for her son but believes probation and counseling would have served him better.

But prosecutors say some kids are just too dangerous to be prosecuted as juveniles and then be released by age 21.

If a criminal is likely to be free in a few years and do more harm, “then I come down on the side of risking the damage that is done by sending someone to prison,” says Gary Walker, a Michigan prosecutor.

“When they tell me placing a younger person in an adult setting is not necessarily for the betterment of the individual,” Walker says, “my answer is: ’Who thinks it is?”’

Attorney: No regrets trying teen as adult
Minnesota prosecutor Backstrom didn’t hesitate in prosecuting Matthew Niedere and Clayton Keister, then 17, as adults in the murder of Niedere’s parents. He says he had to “make a very difficult decision whether to put these young men away for their natural lives, or give them a chance.”

He weighed several factors, including their lack of criminal record and research that shows the part of the brain that regulates impulses and aggression is still developing in the 20s.

Backstrom allowed the teens to plead guilty to murder involving an armed robbery — providing for the possibility of parole in 30 years.

More than a decade ago, Backstrom had pressed Minnesota lawmakers to make it easier for prosecutors to take serious cases into adult court.

He was frustrated when he couldn’t try as an adult a 16-year-old who killed an acquaintance in a drug dispute and served less than 1½ years in juvenile detention.

“That’s not justice,” Backstrom says. “He should have gone to prison 15 or 20 years. That’s what would have happened today.”

Using both punishment, prevention
State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville, Fla., has his own approach.

“I think I’ve created my own juvenile justice system,” he says. “The secret is not choosing punishment vs. prevention, but using both.”

In 16 years, Shorstein’s office has transferred more than 2,600 juvenile cases to adult court. Almost all those who’ve broken the law go to jail for about a year, where they live separately from adults, attend school and receive social services.

If they stay out of trouble while locked up, and for two years of probation, they don’t get a record.

“I believe crime is like gymnastics,” he says. “It really is a young person’s sport. If you incapacitate a 15- or 16-year-old for a year, you can prevent more crime than if you imprison a 22-year-old for life.”

OR - 'Just a Normal Guy' Nabs Predators

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On a rainy day in Portland, the mastermind behind the nation's most visible sex-predator patrol manages to extricate himself from his Southeast apartment.

Xavier Von Erck pulls up to a Sellwood coffee shop in his Scion xB. He's wearing his standard uniform -- a hat and coat, all in black -- and points out a woman on the sidewalk as a non-native: She's using an umbrella.

Waiting for a cup of chai tea at the Twin Paradox cafe, he says he never drinks coffee or goes out, but quickly adds that there's nothing wrong with people who do.

The 27-year-old Portlander makes a living catching online sex predators prowling for underage victims. But he's not on a crusade to protect children; he doesn't even like children.

"People don't like it when I say that, but I just don't like kids," he said. "I'm not a kid person. I don't like being around 'em; I'm never gonna have 'em. But I don't like pedophiles more."

In 2003, Von Erck created, an online group of volunteers who pose as children or young teens in chat rooms and nab men who solicit them for sex. The group has gained fame through the prime-time NBC show "To Catch a Predator," in which a "Dateline" reporter greets men caught in Perverted Justice's stings after they arrive at a decoy house expecting to meet an underage prospect. Locally, Fox affiliate KPTV (12) had collaborated with Perverted Justice but turned to local police for recent stings.
- So basically, they are vigilante predators who troll the Internet looking for unsuspecting victims, or "marks" to groom into trusting them, as they are pretending to be children. Sound familiar? Sounds like predators looking for predators to me.

Von Erck is something of a paradox himself, beyond not liking children. His group points to 140 convictions as a result of its work, yet Von Erck is a libertarian with a distaste for authority. He's regularly interviewed by national outlets such as "The O'Reilly Factor" and The New York Times, yet says he doesn't know what the public thinks of him or why some seem baffled by his ways.
- They claim 100% conviction rate, and how many have actually been convicted?

He settles into a comfortable sofa to chat for a couple of hours, but never takes off his hat or coat.

Some critics say Perverted Justice is sensationalizing a marginal, perhaps even largely phantom, problem of online sexual predators. And, they say, such stings might even create criminal behavior by luring men to act on fantasies that otherwise would have remained just fantasy. Other critics pose ethical questions about television journalists joining forces with police in the stings.

The criticism is tiring, Von Erck says. But then, he's a man who admits being frequently irritated. In fact, it's what got him started down this road in the first place.
- And he gets his vigilante geek squad to go out and accuse people of being pro-pedophile or pro-sex offender, like me, for just speaking out about unconstitutional laws. If you look at Corrupted-Justice web site and forum, they will show you who PJ really are. They are vigilantes who sometimes stalk, harass, threaten and intimidate people who disagree with them.

Sickened by chat rooms

Von Erck was 17 when he first laid hands on a computer.

He says he was too poor to buy a computer, so he would collect friends' library cards and cash in their daily Internet use at the Multnomah County Central Library, hopping among computers and staying online five or six hours a day.

He thought the Internet was great.

"There's a lot of information, a lot to read," Von Erck said. "It's a good way to talk to people."

At least it used to be, he says, back when Von Erck met his fiancee in a Lycos chat room on philosophy and religion. After all the quality chat rooms closed, he said, he was forced to try a Yahoo chat room.
- It still is. If you go into chat rooms looking for trouble, you are bound to find it. I once started trying out the chat rooms, but like you, I was sick and tired of people asking me how old I was, and if I liked sex, etc. So I've not been in them in MANY years. They are inundated with porn, viruses, hacked software, you name it. So I don't even go there anymore.

He was sickened by what he saw: young girls getting bombarded with sexual offers.

"I like the Internet," Von Erck said. "I don't like people trying to hijack it for these sorts of things. It's just disgusting."

Perverted Justice was born.

Born Phillip Eide, Von Erck said his mother left his father shortly after giving birth and that his dad wasn't around for much of his life.

So Von Erck started working at 16; he and his mom struggled to make money for rent, he said.

That's when he dropped the name his father gave him and started going by the one that's now legally his -- adopting the first name of former Seattle SuperSonics player Xavier McDaniel and taking the last name of his maternal great-grandparents.

In school, he was never part of a clique, didn't care much about his image and didn't care for those who did.

"I didn't like goths, I didn't like the smokers, I didn't like the cool kids, I didn't like anybody," he said.

Online stings criticized

Critics of Perverted Justice agree that child abusers should be stopped. But they say Von Erck and his group are going after the wrong people.

Lynn Davenport is a former child protective services worker in Portland who researches child abuse risk, including whether Internet predation is a real threat.
- From this video series, they investigated this, and say it's not a real threat. Watch it for yourself.

She says online stings rarely catch men who have abused minors, so they divert public attention and resources from the majority of child abuse, which comes from family and friends.

"For every guy that doesn't have a victim and is put away," Davenport said, "we could be serving a dozen or two kids."

Instead, she said, online stings stoke dangerous fantasies with unlikely invitations.

"Who would recommend, with a deviant fantasizer, that you encourage" more fantasizing? Davenport asked.

Von Erck has heard the "entrapment" criticism many times, but he says many men aggressively pursue his group's decoys.

"That argument would be fine if they weren't driving and showing up," Von Erck said of the sting's targets.

In November, a former district attorney in Texas caught in one of Von Erck's stings shot himself in the head after police came to his door while "Dateline" crews waited out of sight nearby.
- And see their quotes about these issues. The love to see these people die, from what some of the comments say. And these are not my comments, but theirs.

Von Erck said he felt no responsibility for the prosecutor's death. He was distressed mainly by one thing: losing a potential conviction.
- Not from what some of the comments people have posted to Corrupted-Justice, from you!

"We'd never gotten a district attorney before . . . and he just took the cheap way out," Von Erck said. "I would very much have preferred to go to court and beat him there than to have the guy just shoot himself."

Now in its third year, "To Catch a Predator" consistently out performs other news magazine shows in ratings, according to "Dateline," and there's no definite end in sight, said the show's host, Chris Hansen.
- And that is the whole purpose, ratings, money and sick entertainment. I thought it was an "investigation?"

"We've really been able to raise awareness about this issue," Hansen said. "And we've been able to create a dialog between kids, parents, students and teachers."

In the new episodes that launched last Tuesday and continue for five more weeks, Hansen said stings attracted record numbers of predators -- a total of 80 -- and even a man "Dateline" had caught in a previous sting.
- And how many of these have been convicted in a court of law?

"It's undeniably captivating television," Hansen said.
- You said it, ratings, entertainment and to quench the peoples sick desires to see these people go down. What have we become when we like watching Cops, this show, Jerry Springer, etc? We are all sick. I personally do not watch that crap, because that is what it is. Humiliating people for ratings, money and entertainment purposes.

But it makes some journalists uneasy.
- It should, it's called morals. And Chris Hansen's show is basically convicting people before they are even found guilty in a court of law, all these news shows that publicize this stuff before the person goes to court, like Nancy Disgrace, and others.

"Our job as journalists is to report on the issues and events, not to be participants, barring the exceptional circumstance," said Bob Steele, Poynter Institute journalism ethicist.

Steele argues that "Dateline's" collaboration with Perverted Justice and police undermines its ability to critically report on their work.
- And I want to know why they need Dateline and Perverted Justice? I've seen many articles over the last year or so, where the police are very capable of carrying out their own stings. Again, ratings and money!

"Dateline" this year will pay Von Erck and his two co-administrators just under six figures each as consultants, Von Erck said. Hansen said Perverted Justice organizes the stings with law enforcement and is paid for its expertise.

Hansen said that online stings are worthy of the same kind of hidden-camera techniques that "Dateline" has used in other investigations exposing sex slaves and working conditions.

"I'm getting involved as a correspondent, as a journalist," Hansen said. "I'm seeking answers."

A proud mother

Von Erck says he works at least 15 hours a day, seven days a week, from his apartment. His mother, Mary Erck-Heard, 46, of Gresham is proud of what her son has built.

"Nobody works as hard as he does," she said.

If he comes off as cold, friends say, it's because of his black-and-white sense of right and wrong. By the same token, he cares for people who are living a good life and working hard.
- Yet his group goes after people who do not agree with them, they attack people, call them pro-pedophile or pro-sex offenders or pedophiles. It's all shown on their Wiki site, and I know for a fact, that a lot of that information is BS! Why isn't the registry enough? Now they create their own wiki site to expose who they call pedophiles, pro-pedophiles, etc. They do not even stick to what is said they do on their main page.

"He is (caring) with almost anybody if they're decent people," his mother said. "He doesn't get along with ignorance."
- That is a joke! His comments in many of the groups shows he gets off on harassing people to make himself feel holier than thou and allmighty or something.

Von Erck admits his job is bizarre, particularly for someone who has never been abused. But it makes sense to him.

"The problems you see are the problems you deal with," he said. "I'm just a normal guy who wanted to do something about the (chat)rooms, and then it got big."

There is one personal hazard to his job, though -- to his sex life. Sleazy chatter can wreak havoc on a person's libido, Von Erck said.

"It's very disgusting a lot of times."

TX - Man struggles to rebuild life after TYC ordeal

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Ex-inmate says system built to help only beat him down

Chris Gann was a 14-year-old in need of mending when he walked into a Texas Youth Commission prison in summer 2001.

He had been beaten, sexually abused and abandoned. He never knew his father. His mother was a drug addict. Passed among relatives, he wound up in state custody at 12.

Two years later, he pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a 10-year-old foster brother and was sentenced to TYC.

In the nearly four years he spent in TYC facilities, Mr. Gann said, he was heavily medicated, beaten, psychologically abused and subjected to sexual advances by staff. In June, he was released from TYC parole and began a new life beyond the agency's control. Now 21, he works at an Amarillo-area store, saving money for college.

The Texas Youth Commission vowed to fix broken children, but it failed thousands of youth in its care. The agency crumbled this year amid widespread reports of physical and sexual abuse. While Chris Gann's story is unique, his experiences at the troubled state agency are not.

"I don't think TYC did anything to help me," he said. "They knew they had power over you, and they took advantage of it."

Road to TYC

Almost from the day he was born, Chris Gann was on a path to TYC. When he was 2, Child Protective Services took him from his mother for several weeks because of suspected neglect. He lived with his mother off and on until he was 7, when child welfare officers removed him because of her drug use and placed him with an aunt, court records show.

In the years that followed, the boy with strawberry-blond hair and a gentle nature bounced from relatives to foster families in Amarillo and Pampa, Texas. Some of his mother's lovers beat him terribly, he and his mother said.

"I would go to school with bruises on me," Mr. Gann said. "Teachers would ask me: What was wrong? Why did I look like I did? I was always scared to say something."

Mr. Gann was 9 and nearly illiterate when he went to live with Brad and Betty Bradford, the parents of a man who married his mother.

"He was a fine little man," Mrs. Bradford recalled. "He could clean house. He would do anything you asked him to do."

He eventually returned to his mother, but the homecoming ended badly. In 1999, she gave up custody for the final time after a boyfriend threatened to leave otherwise. She signed the papers in front of her distraught son and, at 12, Chris Gann became a permanent ward of the state.

When he was 13, Texas authorities sent him to live with a man in Indiana who claimed to be his father, court records state. They lived in a decrepit house frequented by drunks and drug users, Mr. Gann said. The man plied him with liquor and beer, Mr. Gann said, and later put him to work on a tobacco farm.

After about two months, Mr. Gann accused the man of sexual abuse and was returned to Texas. The sexual abuse allegations were never corroborated, according to court records. Mr. Gann said he still isn't sure whether the man is his father.

Back in Amarillo, the teen was admitted to a hospital for seizure-like states and "long periods of stares or trances," according to court records. He was diagnosed as having a nervous breakdown and admitted to a psychiatric center.

Mr. Gann was released that fall and placed with an Amarillo foster family. He was attending school, doing his homework and undergoing counseling for his painful past. Then, as before, his life imploded.

In March 2001, Mr. Gann's foster parents accused him of sexually assaulting their 10-year-old son and another foster child. Court documents say the 10-year-old described being "dragged down the hallway and put into the bedroom" where oral and anal sex was performed. Mr. Gann describes the sexual contact as consensual, youthful experimentation. But a judge found him guilty of aggravated sexual assault and ordered him to TYC.

Mr. Gann said his court-appointed attorney made TYC sound like a summer camp.

"She put all these papers in front of me and said, 'All these papers say is you messed up, you're going to go to TYC for a little while, you're going to come out and everything is going to be OK,' " Mr. Gann said.

'A real nasty place'

The staff at the TYC prison in Marlin called it "discipline training."

Every afternoon, for an hour or longer in the summer heat, Mr. Gann and other Marlin inmates were forced to run laps around a dirt track inside the compound, he said. On a staff member's command, the inmates would throw themselves to the ground for push-ups, then scramble to their feet for more laps.

Anyone who stopped without permission was slammed to the ground, handcuffed and left to lie in the blazing sun, he said.

"We were all just falling over and throwing up," said Mr. Gann, by then 14. When it was all over, "we would all be laying there, crying, sore, all scraped up and bleeding."

Young inmates who got sick or hurt found little sympathy, he said.

"When you would go to the infirmary, all they would tell you was to drink water and you'd be OK," he said.

Inmates also performed a drill known as "55-5," he said, in which they would stand at attention for 55 minutes at their bunks, then sit for five minutes. They did this about six times a day, he said.

Mr. Gann said inmates who angered guards were confined to filthy cells infested with cockroaches and rats.

"Marlin was a real nasty place," he said.

Director of security

On his final day at Marlin, Mr. Gann learned his next stop would be the San Saba State School.

Returning TYC inmates and Marlin staff told terrifying stories about the Central Texas juvenile prison. Inmates got "beaten up by guards and shanked by kids if you got on the bad side of guards," Mr. Gann said he was told.

Shortly after his arrival at San Saba, Mr. Gann met the prison's director of security, Ray Brookins, who years later would play a leading role in the sex-abuse scandal that brought down TYC.

In two years at San Saba, Mr. Brookins had been disciplined eight times for policy violations or poor work, TYC records show. He had received 90 days' employment probation for accessing pornographic Web sites at work and storing photos of naked men and women on his office computer, the records show.

Mr. Brookins was known at San Saba for another habit: He "regularly took youth into his office, alone in the evening, and with the blinds closed," a TYC report later noted.

The security director frequently asked inmates if they would like to clean his office or the security cells after hours, Mr. Gann said.

Mr. Gann said he always declined, but he couldn't avoid aggressive strip-searches performed by Mr. Brookins. The searches were standard procedure for inmates after work shifts in the San Saba cafeteria. Typically, security staff had inmates strip and squat to make sure they weren't hiding contraband.

During the searches, Mr. Gann said, Mr. Brookins would touch the genitals of inmates.

Mr. Brookins did not respond to calls seeking comment. He is awaiting trial on charges of sexually abusing young male inmates at TYC's West Texas State School in 2004 and 2005, after leaving San Saba. He has denied the charges.

Brutal guards, big dreams

At San Saba, Mr. Gann said, he experienced firsthand TYC's culture of fear and intimidation. One day, his sister mentioned in a letter that she had moved to Amarillo's east side. A guard decided the "east side" reference was gang code.

A security officer handcuffed Mr. Gann's arms behind his back and shoved him into a door. The officer continued slamming him into walls and windows on the way from the dormitory to the security unit, said Mr. Gann.

"I had a black eye, a scratch on my forehead, and huge knot on the side of my head," he said.

When he sought treatment at the prison infirmary, he was told only to stay out of trouble and drink water.

"They told me I needed to learn to behave so I wouldn't have to go to security," he said, referring to the prison's secure area where inmates were taken for protection as well as punishment.

In late summer 2001, volunteer Gwen Rogers offered to mentor young inmates at the San Saba State School. She was assigned to Chris Gann.

At their first meeting, Mr. Gann slurred his words and appeared to be heavily medicated, Mrs. Rogers recalled. He wouldn't make eye contact. He burned with anger and distrust.

Afterward, Mrs. Rogers said, she went home and cried.

She returned every week, slowly gaining Mr. Gann's trust. He would greet her with a big smile and a hug, and they would launch into conversation.

"There was a gentleness in him," she said.

Sometimes, they talked about the mother who had abandoned him and the crime he had committed.

"He was very remorseful," said Mrs. Rogers. "He would say, if he could take it back, he wouldn't have done it, but that's what had been done to him all his life."

Mr. Gann worked hard to improve himself in the prison's education program, Mrs. Rogers said, and he bubbled with excitement when he passed a test or completed a subject. He began to dream about life outside the prison, the career in law he hoped to pursue, the blue Mustang convertible he planned to buy.

"He said when he got a blue Mustang he was going to come back and pick me up and take me to get a hamburger," Mrs. Rogers said. "That's one thing I'll always remember."

'So many sad things'

Mrs. Rogers said she tried to make Mr. Gann laugh, "because there were so many sad things going on there."

One incident typified for her the brutal treatment of inmates. A guard had grabbed an inmate during Bible study in the prison chapel, roughly handcuffed the youth's hands behind his back and dragged him away, said Mrs. Rogers. The youth's offense: He had asked what verse they were reading.

"I saw a whole lot of abuse against kids," said Mr. Gann, "heads busted up, black eyes, stuff like that."

Encouraged by his mentor, Mr. Gann filed grievances against abusive staff. Some retaliated by slowing his progress through the TYC rehabilitation program, in which inmates must complete numbered phases and be approved for advancement.

TYC guards and staff routinely retaliated against inmates throughout the system by filing disciplinary actions that resulted in a loss of phases, thereby lengthening confinement, investigations show.

Mr. Gann said that one caseworker gave him a disciplinary citation for lack of eye contact during a conversation. When Mr. Gann made eye contact, the caseworker cited him for too much eye contact, then cited him again for explaining his behavior.

"To them, it's sort of a game to keep you in there," he said.

Some staff pressured inmates for sexual favors in exchange for privileges such as watching television, he said. Others sometimes instigated violence against troublemakers, including inmates who reported brutality. Mr. Gann's problems were repeated throughout the TYC system, according to investigations by The Dallas Morning News.

"Staff would tell you they want you to assault another kid that's in the [TYC] program, so they'd go do their paperwork or go to the bathroom so they wouldn't see it," he said.

Mr. Gann said he realized that he had to give in to TYC culture if he hoped to get out before he turned 21. From then on, he said, if staff asked him to fabricate accusations against other inmates, he did.

"I did whatever they told me, whether it was right or wrong, so I could go home," he said.

Mr. Gann achieved two goals before leaving San Saba: In 2003, he earned his GED. The following year, he collected his high school diploma.

In September 2004, two days before his 18th birthday, Mr. Gann was informed that he would be moving on. But TYC wasn't finished with him yet.

Halfway home

Mr. Gann said he encountered problems soon after he arrived at a TYC halfway house in Austin, and most of them revolved around caseworker Craig Headley.

The trouble started when the caseworker came to him and said, "Chris, I think you're attracted to other guys," Mr. Gann said. The caseworker asked him to share his sexual fantasies, or he wouldn't go home. On another occasion, Mr. Headley took him into his office and put a hand on his leg, he said.

"I could tell he was sexually attracted to me," said Mr. Gann. "He would tell other guys, 'Chris is gay.' So I reported him."

Mr. Gann said TYC accused him of lying.

Mr. Headley told The News that confidentiality restrictions prevented him from discussing Mr. Gann's allegations.

"I've certainly never had such allegations made before," he said in a telephone conversation. "Even so, I can't defend myself and break confidentiality."

Mr. Headley said he resigned from TYC in December 2006.

TYC personnel records state that Mr. Headley resigned "in lieu of termination" on Nov. 30, 2006. His resignation came after he was disciplined at least eight times for poor job performance or policy violations, TYC records show.

The most serious incident occurred in August 2006. TYC placed Mr. Headley on 90 days' probation for offenses that included "failing to maintain appropriate staff/youth relationships" and "failure to exercise the reason and judgment expected of someone in your position," TYC records show.

Twice during Mr. Gann's stay at Turman House, he filed grievances against Mr. Headley. And twice, around those times, Mr. Headley put notes in Mr. Gann's file flagging him as a threat to re-offend, according to TYC records.

In December 2004, a few weeks after his surrogate grandfather, Mr. Bradford, notified TYC headquarters that Mr. Gann was "languishing at Turman House without support or progress," Mr. Gann was allowed to work at a Long John Silver's restaurant in Austin.

Mr. Gann was required to give his paycheck to a Turman administrator for deposit in a common inmate account, maintained at each TYC facility. Mr. Gann said he later discovered that his account was hundreds of dollars short.

Other Turman inmates noticed similar discrepancies, he said.

Mr. Gann said he filed a grievance about the missing money, and was told that funds had been deducted for various expenses but were accounted for.

Scores of TYC inmates have made similar accusations about mishandling of funds over the past five years, agency records show.

TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said the agency "has built-in redundancies to ensure accuracy and appropriateness in handling the money" in inmate accounts. Privacy laws, he said, prevented him from responding to allegations involving a specific inmate.

New life

In March 2005, after six months at Turman, Mr. Gann was released to an independent living program in Dallas. He said he knew he would have to register as a sex offender with local police. But only after arriving in Dallas did Mr. Gann discover that TYC had classified him as a "high-risk" sex offender for his 2001 conviction, he said.

As a result, the Texas Department of Public Safety mailed postcards to neighborhood residents and merchants that showed his photograph and listed his crime and current address. Mr. Gann said the postcards cost him a job and three apartments.

He said he believes the high-risk classification was payback from Mr. Headley.

"Mr. Headley told me he was going to make my life hard when I left Turman House," he said.

TYC records list Mr. Headley as the person who notified the Dallas Police Department of Mr. Gann's classification. But TYC officials told Mr. Gann in a May letter that his "high-risk" classification was the result of a mistaken assessment at San Saba State School.

On May 3, 2007, as The News was inquiring about the case, TYC changed Mr. Gann's risk rating to "moderate."

In June, Mr. Gann completed his TYC parole and returned to the Panhandle to be near his surrogate grandmother and other relatives as he rebuilds his life. He got a clerk's job at a discount store in Pampa and quickly was promoted to assistant manager. His background has made it impossible to find an apartment, he said, so he rents a motel room by the week.

He has started saving money for college. And he hopes someday to be a lawyer, he said, so he can protect young offenders from the treatment he experienced.

"The only thing that I learned in TYC is that I will never mistreat or abuse somebody," said Mr. Gann. "I know how it feels."

MI - Erskine: Jailing Michigan teens for consensual sex is ridiculous

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It's time for state to reform laws on teenage sexuality

As a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, I am outraged that our teenagers can be, and are being, punished for consensual relationships. Teenage sex is nothing new. It has been going on for a very long time.

Today, teenagers are growing up faster and younger. Our schools are teaching them about safe sex and birth control, which implies an expectation of them using this information. At the same time, laws intended to protect our children are enforced (selectively) to punish our teenagers as harshly as violent adult rapists.

But who is teaching, or even telling, them that they can go to prison for teenage sex if one teenager is over 16 and the other is under the age of 16 - regardless of the age gap? Even if we don't agree morally, is it fair to ruin one teenager's life for the consensual act of two teenagers?

The age of consent (16 in Michigan) is intended to protect our young people from predators and pedophiles, not to destroy young teenage lives. I do not want to view the state's sex offender registry and see someone who was convicted of a consensual relationship as a teenager; I want to see the predators who are dangerous to my family.

States across the nation are enacting Romeo and Juliet guidelines so two consenting teenagers within a few years' age difference will not have to face criminal charges.

It is time for Michigan to do the same.

It is a waste of our taxpayer dollars to prosecute teenagers for consensual acts. Where does it stop? If we prosecute one, then should we line up all teenagers in the school auditorium and interrogate them about their activities? Where is the common sense?

A young man's future could be ruined for a nonviolent act and his family put through financial ruin for a consensual act in which the female then gets to continue living in the same manner.

If the act is consensual, between teenagers, and the young man is not old enough to vote or even sign a contract, how can our legal system send him to prison, where he would be placed with dangerous criminals, and put him on the sex offender registry with violent pedophiles and predators? Where is the line drawn - within a few months of the statutory age, within a few years?

The age of consent varies from state to state. When has the poor judgment of young people become a reason to waste our taxpayer dollars, on prosecuting, incarcerating and updating a sex offender registry for someone who is not a predator? Isn't that our job as parents, to teach our teenagers and guide their choices?

How many of us would be in jail if every teenager was prosecuted for having sex? Federal guidelines are changing, and maybe it is time for Michigan to do the same - before our teenagers fall victim to the same laws that are meant to help protect them from predators.

- Sandra Erskine lives in Lansing

FL - Inmate found hanging from bunk

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ORANGE COUNTY - An Orange County Jail inmate committed suicide early Friday while awaiting transfer to prison, a jail spokesman said.

Robert Lee Stafford II, 50, was found at about 1:20 a.m., hanged with a bedsheet tied to his bunk, jail spokesman Allen Moore said. Corrections officers dialed 911 and tried to revive him, but he was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The Orange County Sheriff's Office and jail officials are investigating. Moore said workers saw no signs Stafford would try to kill himself.

Stafford was in protective custody because he was arrested on child-molestation charges. He was the sole person assigned to his cell. He pleaded guilty Wednesday in Orange County Circuit Court to one count of lewd or lascivious battery and was sentenced to eight years in prison and seven years of sex-offender probation.

Stafford was to be transferred to the state Department of Corrections' Central Florida Reception Center to be assigned to a state prison. He had been in jail for a year.

GA - Keen opens his mouth, shifts the blame

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How can you tell if Rep. Jerry Keen (Email), R-St. Simons Island, is grandstanding?

His lips are moving.

Remember what Keen, primary sponsor of the incompetently crafted sex offender legislation HB 1059 told his colleagues in the Legislature:

"We want people running away from Georgia. Given the toughest laws here, we think a lot of people could move to another state. If it becomes too onerous and too inconvenient, they just may want to live somewhere else. And I don't care where, as long as it's not in Georgia."

Sex offenders unable to comply with the tough standards, Keen said, "will, in many cases, have to move to another state."

On Nov. 21, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the state's sex offender residency law in the case of Mann v. Department of Corrections.

The court held that the part of the 2006 Georgia law that prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of day care centers, schools, churches and other places where children congregate was unconstitutional because it violates the takings clauses of the state and federal constitutions.

Thinking people -- legal, law enforcement and lay -- were not surprised by the court's decision.

"... Keen's law has taken a beating in the press and has been subjected to harsh criticism by law enforcement officials," said Sara Totonchi, public policy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. "Keen had the opportunity to fix problems with the law last session, but -- too proud to admit his errors -- he failed to do so. He also thwarted the Senate's courageous efforts to make this law workable. As a result, the Supreme Court's decision last week was all but inevitable."

Never missing an opportunity to grandstand and deflect attention from himself, Keen looked into the eyes of the cameras and moved his lips a little closer to the microphones -- then shifted the blame.

"Instead of accepting responsibility for an unconstitutional law that created chaos and wasted limited law enforcement resources, Keen's reaction has been to accuse the Supreme Court of 'superceding... the will of the people,' " Totonchi said.

Not so, Mr. Keen.

If the will of the people had been at the heart of HB 1059, it would have been drafted by a more competent hand.

At this point, the people want to know that budget-strapped law enforcement agencies can keep them safe despite the positions they found themselves in since the law went into effect.

Before HB 1059 went into effect, Oliver Hunter, deputy general counsel of the Georgia Sheriff's Association, was skeptical.

"I know what legislators are trying to do, but I'm not sure the bill accomplishes that. There are so many unanswered questions," he said.

Maybe they'll get it right next time around.

IL - Convicted lawyer’s license suspended

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A McHenry lawyer convicted last year of possessing child pornography has had his law license suspended for 21⁄2 years.

The suspension against John Roth, 48, was handed down Nov. 20 by the Illinois Supreme Court after the case was reviewed by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

Roth pleaded guilty in August 2006 to three counts of child-porn possession and was sentenced to 21⁄2 years of probation and ordered to pay fines and court costs.

In April 2004, as part of a federal child-porn sting, federal and McHenry County authorities searched Roth’s McHenry law firm, where they found the images and videos.

Roth had been a village attorney and municipal prosecutor for many McHenry County communities, including Richmond, Cary and McCullom Lake.

Since his arrest, Roth has stopped representing public bodies.

MA - Former selectman to serve five-year sentence

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SOUTHBOROUGH - Losing his seat as a Southborough selectman after 12 years, along with mental trauma from his service in Vietnam, may have led William Christensen to solicit sex from underage girls, his lawyer told a federal judge yesterday.

During a sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Providence, lawyer Jeffrey Pine told Judge Mary Lisi his client is not the "typical defendant" in a sexual predator case.

"He is in his 60s and spent his whole life as an accomplished individual," Pine said. "He has no record whatsoever prior to May 2006."

During that month, Christensen got caught twice trying to solicit sex from underage girls in online chat rooms and sent them explicit photos of himself. The "girls" turned out to be undercover officers.

The other offense occurred in Plymouth County, where Christensen pleaded guilty in December and got a 2 1/2-year suspended jail sentence.

The two incidents, Pine said, stemmed from a series of events that sent Christensen into a spiral of depression and destructive behavior. The depression could have been related to post-traumatic stress from Christensen's time in the military serving in Vietnam, but was likely sparked by his losing his seat on the Board of Selectmen in May 2006 after serving 12 years.

"A combination of bad things happened and caused Mr. Christensen to act out and do something bad," Pine said. "The rejection from the public (during the election), it doesn't make sense to us but it may have been the trigger for abnormal, deviant behavior."

Lisi sentenced Christensen, 61, to five years in prison on each of two counts of using the Internet to solicit sex from teenage girls. She ruled he would serve those terms concurrently. He must report to prison on Dec. 28, Lisi said.

While Christensen never had contact with an underage girl, Lisi said the sentence reflects serious actions that Christensen undertook.

"This isn't punishment for talking or thinking about doing something," Lisi said. "Rather (it is punishment for) when you started sending (obscene) photos of yourself and when you got into the car to meet a young girl you thought was 15 years old."

Lisi said she believes the penalty fit the crime.

"Congress has taken a very hard line (on sexual predators on the Internet) as I believe it should on that sort of thing," Lisi said. "(The minimum sentence) addresses serious concerns in our society. It is appropriate punishment not only because it is fair but because it should serve as a deterrent to others."

Lisi noted that a change in federal law made in July 2006 puts the minimum sentence at 10 years. If Christensen had been arrested after that date, he would have received the longer sentence.

In addition to the prison time, Christensen must also pay a $10,000 fine. Lisi also ruled that after his release from prison, Christensen will be monitored by federal officials for 10 years, he will not be able to meet with anyone under age 18 without proper adult supervision and cannot use the Internet unless given prior permission from federal authorities.

He must also install monitoring software on his computer and is subject to random, unannounced searches of his computer by the feds.

Before the sentence was handed down, Christensen told the judge, he is a "good person," who made "a terrible, terrible mistake."

"I take responsibility for my actions. I hope the court takes into consideration my service I have given to my country and my community," said Christensen who served in the military and earned two Bronze Stars.

"This country has always been one to give second chances. I hope the court will give me the chance to earn forgiveness of my family, friends and my community."

Pine requested that Christensen be placed in a prison in, or near, Massachusetts, preferably at a facility for sex offenders at the former Army base at Fort Devens. Lisi agreed to recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that he be sent to Fort Devens.

Since he was first arraigned in court, Christensen has been under house arrest in Southborough.

Pine asked for the judge's permission to allow Christensen to have a dinner out at a restaurant before he begins his sentence to celebrate the recent engagement of one of his sons. He also requested that the sentence begin a week later so Christensen could spend the day with his wife on her birthday, which falls a few days after he must report to prison. Lisi denied both requests.

A somber Christensen gave his wife a hug after leaving the courtroom. He did not speak to reporters.

After the hearing, Pine said he had little room to negotiate because of the federal minimum sentence guidelines that required Christensen to serve five years.

"It has been frustrating. With the mandatory minimum, there is not a lot of room to maneuver," Pine said.

Christensen's case was the first in Rhode Island to be moved from the state level to the federal courts as part of a program called Project Safe Child, said Ronald Gendron, an assistant district attorney with the state of Rhode Island and special assistant U.S. attorney for Project Safe Child.

Gendron said he hopes the sentence sends a message to other potential sexual predators and sex offenders.

"The message is don't engage in this sort of thing," Gendron said.

NE - Ex-corrections officer accused of sexually assaulting girl

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LINCOLN - A former guard sergeant at the state prison in Lincoln has been accused of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl.

Court documents said Craig Beckman, 43, was charged with sexual assault of a child and felony child abuse. Penalties range up to 50 years in prison.

Beckman surrendered to Lincoln police but has already been released on bond. A state spokesman said Thursday that Beckman has resigned his position.

Beckman's next court hearing was scheduled for Dec. 11.

In an arrest warrant affidavit, police said Beckman assaulted the girl several times over the past year.

MD - Ex-Deputy, Under Investigation, Kills Himself

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A former Fairfax County sheriff's deputy who was being investigated for allegedly molesting a 12-year-old boy shot and killed himself in Herndon on Tuesday, one day after police searched his home.

David L. Ruel, 42, had been a Fairfax deputy for 19 years and was assigned to the county's code enforcement task force, Fairfax Sheriff's Lt. Basilio Cachuela said. Ruel retired in October, in a move apparently unrelated to the sex investigation, and had been working as a security specialist at Herndon High School for a month, a schools spokesman said.

On Nov. 15, an 18-year-old man told Fairfax police that he had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by Ruel beginning sometime in 2001 and continuing for about 18 months, according to a search warrant affidavit filed yesterday. The man reported that when he was 12 years old, Ruel sexually abused him on numerous occasions, supplied him with alcohol and photographed him while naked, the affidavit by Detective Richard L. Mullins states.

Police obtained a search warrant for Ruel's apartment and storage unit on Astoria Circle in Herndon on Monday afternoon and searched them for two hours, court records show. Computers and many other items were seized.

On Tuesday, police obtained more search warrants. When officers went back to Astoria Circle, Ruel was found dead on a nearby athletic field, Mullins wrote. Ruel died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, Fairfax police officer Don Gotthardt said.

Ruel was the second Fairfax deputy to be investigated for sex crimes this month. On Nov. 8, Deputy Robert A. Romero Jr. was arrested after federal agents discovered more than 1,000 images of child pornography on his home computer.

Romero resigned the day of his arrest.

Fairfax Sheriff Stan G. Barry said the two cases were unrelated. "It's unfortunate that they came so close together," Barry said. "It's unfortunate they happened at all."

Barry said that the allegations against Ruel are "obviously very serious charges" and that he hoped the police would continue to investigate the case to determine whether the allegations are factual. Gotthardt said the investigation will proceed despite Ruel's suicide.

Teen Sex in Schools

And if you get caught, you will be labeled a sex offender for life, probably...

CT - Tracking down sex offenders

TN - Woman, 29, charged with raping 12-year-old

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A 29-year-old Shelbyville woman was indicted this month on five counts of rape of a 12-year-old boy, according to public records.

Rhonda Louise Medley, 29, was arrested Aug. 21 by Shelbyville police detective Brian Crews who charged her with the crimes alleged on July 10, 12, 16, 17 and 19, the woman's arrest warrants state.

No preliminary hearing was conducted on a request from her attorney, Robert Marlow of Shelbyville, and so Sessions Court Judge Charles Rich sent the case to the grand jury which met on Nov. 19 when she was indicted.

Indictment does not mean a defendant is guilty. It means grand jurors believe there's reason to take the case toward trial in circuit court.

However, circuit court isn't the only forum for Medley, according to Marlow, who on Wednesday said, "She's facing extremely serious charges, not only the criminal charges, but as a result of the criminal charges, there are proceedings in juvenile court."

He didn't elaborate.

"I believe that, eventually, the truth will come out," Marlow said, concluding, "She has entered a plea of not guilty."

She has been released on $50,000 bond. Court records list Medley's address as Courtland Drive.

"She is no longer living at that address," Marlow said.

No hearing is set for the case, although it will probably be called as a matter of routine case management by the court next month.

On Nov. 17, Medley was among nearly two dozen indicted defendants, including a man accused of robbing the Pik N Chek Market on Lane Parkway while armed with a .38-caliber pistol and fleeing with $552 in cash on May 23.

Keenon Terrell Whitaker, 27, of Cherokee Trail, was indicted on charges of especially aggravated robbery. He was listed as being held without bond.

Shelbyville police officer Tory Moore wrote in arrest warrants that Whitaker allegedly demanded money from Payal Patel, struck her several times in the head and made her go to a back room where he kicked her several times in the stomach.

When Moore got to the store, a customer told him a suspect fled into the public housing development across the street and apparently went out of sight on Regent Drive, the warrant states. As the officer went in the direction suggested by the store's customer, a woman said a suspect had changed clothes and was near Thomas Intermediate School.

During his pursuit of Whitaker, Moore told the suspect to stop. The officer also wrote in the warrants that in front of 519 Elm St., Whitaker allegedly dropped a pistol, "and just prior to being taken into custody, he threw down a bag containing cash from the store."

FL - Overpass last refuge for sex offenders

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As he left prison this month, a convicted sex offender named Jose Valido gave officials the Tampa address where he planned to live while he served his probation. But the house was too close to a school and a day care, and against the rules.

So what became Valido's official, state-approved residence?

A spot downtown under Tampa's Selmon Crosstown Expressway, where his probation officer could stop by a particular underpass at night to be sure he wasn't busting curfew.

Valido wasn't the only one with an official outdoor address approved by a probation officer. Another sex offender already lived at the Crosstown. Men have resided similarly under Miami's Julia Tuttle Causeway because they had nowhere else to legally go.

We have men officially living under bridges. To borrow the words of the judge in the Valido case, what country is this?

Sex offenders are our modern lepers, and no, I don't want them living next door to me, either.

Some politicians are only too happy to exploit our trepidation. We push them out; a couple of towns ban them completely. An apartment building that was within the rules suddenly isn't when the city approves a day care next door. Men crowd into the few boarding houses that make the cut.

A few end up under an expressway or a bridge.

Valido, 54, is on probation after six years and nine months in prison. He pleaded guilty to sexual battery of a child. The file detailing the charges paints a picture of a truly vile character. He planned to live at his brother's house, but it was within 1,000 feet of an elementary school and a day care. "He was told he couldn't live there, so he had to go live under a bridge," his lawyer told a judge this week. According to the Department of Corrections, a probation officer told Valido about the Crosstown option, saying another sex offender living there could give him directions.

Valido was charged with violating curfew when the probation officer who showed up to check on him didn't find him. His lawyer said he had been threatened by people there because he had money.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Dan Perry - who questioned how he could violate the man's probation for not being under an expressway - put the case on hold while Valido's lawyer tries to put him with family in Miami.

"Find him a place," the judge said.

Well, boo hoo for Valido and his ilk, some people are saying about now.

Me, I'm of the aren't-we-better-than-this school. But if the idea of these people living under a bridge causes you no heartburn whatsoever on grounds of morality or humanity, consider this: It sure makes it harder to hold a job. It puts people closer to drugs and disconnection and the possibility of crime. Police do not want these men to melt into the transient world unmonitored. Wouldn't we be better off with offenders paying rent at designated, appropriately located apartments or trailer parks?

DOC spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff said a bridge is not a good alternative, but it's better than not knowing where offenders are. So far this has happened only in Miami and Tampa, but the lack of appropriate housing grows. "We keep saying there may be no places left but under overpasses," says Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.

And to repeat the judge: What country is this?