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Penalty may not always fit the crime for young sex offenders

There's a line in the Bible attributed to Pontius Pilate in which he asks, "What is truth?" He is reported to have said that just before declaring publicly that Jesus of Nazareth was not guilty of any crime. Most readers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania know how that story ends.

We recall that particular scene to make the observation that there can be situations today in which it is fair to ask, what is truth? If you are convicted of wrongdoing, the punishment is supposed to fit that crime. But that's not how it always works out, which reinforces why we always say if you've been accused of a crime, consult an attorney for the protection of your rights.

In some cases, the concern isn't only about protecting rights. It may be about protecting your entire future. To see what we mean, we invite you to peruse a recent article that appeared in "The New Yorker." It explores whether society's understandable aversion to the problem of child sexual abuse has led to a practice known as "charging large" and whether some defendants haven't suffered punishment well beyond what fit their crimes.

Many of the cases that are highlighted in the piece feature individuals who did things when they were very young, 10 or 12. In one case, a girl of 10 pulled the pants of a male classmate down at school. In others, the circumstances reflected young people doing something consensually that they didn't know might get them in trouble.

Very often, they were brought before courts, charged as adults and pleaded guilty, raising the question of whether they fully appreciated the implications of what they were agreeing to. Specifically, could they possibly have understood the long-term detrimental effects to their lives of being on the public registry of sex offenders?

Experts in human development and sexual violence agree there are times when children's actions reflect nothing more than healthy sexual development. But a lot of adults don't know which actions are OK or where to draw the line. Maybe better education would help. On the bright side, there are groups working to try to help make the delineations clearer.

In the meantime, though, those charged with sex crimes need to watch out for their own best interests -- if they are minors, their guardians need to do the watching.

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Law Office of P. Zachary Stewart
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