Sentencing disparities in child-sex-assault cases point to double standard
By Monte Whaley
The Denver Post
Posted: 08/21/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT
Women in Colorado convicted of sexually assaulting a child in their care are far less likely to go to prison than men sentenced for the same crime.
A Denver Post analysis of sentencing data provided by the Colorado Judicial Branch shows that of the 2,128 men convicted of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust from 2006 through 2010, more than 50 percent were sent to prison.
Of the 79 women convicted of the same felony offense, 38 percent went to prison. A little more than 39 percent of female defendants in that same period – 31 – were put on intensive supervised probation. Less than 35 percent of men were given the same sentence.
Experts who have studied the issue say those statistics are mirrored nationwide and show a clear disparity between how male and female teachers, coaches and babysitters are treated when they are convicted of sexually abusing a child.
With women, the victim is often a young or teen male in her charge, and too often the abuse is seen as less traumatic and almost a badge of honor for the boy, said forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland.
“There is still a double standard out there, and it’s almost a joke – ‘Hey, he got hit on by some pretty teacher, what’s he complaining about?’ ” said Ramsland, who has worked with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. “Many don’t see it as much of a crime, and one of the factors that women are getting off easier is some don’t see them as a big of a threat as a man.
“But the ramifications are just as bad for the victims,” she said.
Cycle of victimization
Police in Cañon City say 15-year-old Tristen Hagen killed himself April 4 with a lethal dose of narcotics because he was infatuated with 30-year- old Brenda Lynette Harding.
Harding was described by police as Tristen’s babysitter and “caregiver” during the summer of 2010, the same time she started having sex with him. Harding was arrested April 15 on felony sex-assault charges.
On Aug. 8, Harding pleaded guilty to sexual assault on a child. She faces two years to life in prison when sentenced in late September.
Ramsland and others who track sexual-assault cases involving both men and women say prosecutors are starting to understand that women caught preying on teens – both boys and girls – can do just as much damage as men and are pushing for judges to treat offenders of both genders equally.
“Maybe, at the time, it’s a locker room ‘high five’ kind of thing, but in five or six months, there becomes real ramifications for a 14- or 15-year-old kid,” said Louann DeCoursey, executive director of the Fort Collins-based Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Center.
Several studies show that males molested by female caregivers run a huge risk of becoming sex offenders in adulthood. Also, 80 percent of male victims of female sexual abuse have been divorced, according to a study done by Stephanie Reidlinger, a law student at Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va.
Her study says that women who molest boys are most likely victims of abuse themselves. Reidlinger also says that many cases of woman-on- boy crimes are not reported at all, due in part to the media.
“Media outlets rarely use language to convey this type of sexual abuse as a traumatic crime,” Reidlinger said. “While reports about male offenders quite often include words like ‘predator’ or ‘monster,’ reports of female crimes refer to the perpetrators as ‘bombshells’ or the conduct as a ‘romp.’ “
DeCoursey and her group counsel sexual-assault victims in northern Colorado. Earlier this year, the group sent counselors to Loveland’s Mountain View High School to talk to students in the aftermath of the arrest of Courtney Bowles, 31, an instructional coach who had sex with a 16-year-old male student in a car at North Lake Park.
About 40 percent of the people the center counsels are male, DeCoursey said. She credits local prosecutors with concentrating on the crime of sexual assault itself and not the gender of the people involved.
Still, cultural notions persist that woman-on-boy sex is a party and not a serious crime. “If a man and woman burglarizes your home, you’d expect both to get the same sentence,” DeCoursey said. “But sometimes it’s not the same in a sex crime.”
Behind the disparities
To be sure, women who abuse children and who are also teachers, coaches and babysitters are a significant minority. In fact, only eight women either had their teaching credentials revoked or denied by the Colorado Department of Education from 2006 to the present because of sexual misconduct.
During that same period, 32 male educators were disciplined for the same reason, according to the department.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers also contend that the sentencing disparity between the genders could result from multiple factors, including prior history and likelihood of recidivism.
A 2005 study shows that females convicted of a sexual offense repeat the same offense only about 1 percent of the time. The recidivism rate for male sex offenders is 13.4 percent.
That could play a role in determining whether a female offender should be sent to prison and, if she is, how long she should stay, said Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson.
“You look at the charges, you look at the level of threat that individual is causing the community and if that person is subjecting the victim to pretty significant trauma. You have to look at all of those factors,” Abrahamson said.
Sex offenders also are subject to intense psycho-sexual evaluations that weigh whether that person is likely to recommit a sex crime, he said.
“Those responses can determine what kind of punishment level you are seeking,” Abrahamson said.
Abrahamson’s office prosecuted Brighton social studies teacher Carrie Day McCandless and Bowles, who were involved in two of the region’s more high-profile female sex crimes. Neither McCandless nor Bowles was sent to prison.
Bowles was given 10 years of intensive supervised probation, while McCandless, convicted in 2007, was given a deferred sentence for sexually assaulting a male student during a class trip to Estes Park.
Bowles’ defense attorney, Derek Samuelson, declined to detail the discussions that led to her plea deal. He did say Larimer County prosecutors treated the case without gender bias.
However, Samuelson said, the passing of indeterminate sentencing laws in the late 1990s by state lawmakers have locked judges into a “one size fits all” method of pursuing and convicting sex offenders, both men and women.
“No other crime, besides first-degree murder, is as harshly punished,” Samuelson said.
Often, a person – say a teacher or coach – is sent to prison for life for a judgment error, he said.
“The truth of the matter is that in many of these cases, the teenager involved is a more-than-willing participant,” Samuelson said. “Certainly if that person is someone in a position of trust they should be punished, but we should be talking about how the level of punishment should fit the crime.”