Living with a label: Juvenile sex offenders in Lane County
No matter their regrets or time served, many of Lane County's 187 adult sex offenders who committed a crime as a child have no recourse for registry relief
For most youth, childhood is a seemingly innocent and simple time, typically full of school work, play time and life lessons.
But when a child becomes a registered sex offender when they are as young as 10, those years are full of probation, detention and life lessons of another kind: living with a label.
Children have long represented a small percentage of sex offenders required to be on the sex offender registry list in Oregon, just as in states across the country, labeled alongside adult offenders — potentially forever.
Since a change in Oregon law in 2014, juvenile sex offenders have to register only if the court decides to require it at the termination of their case. Judges now are able to decide at the end of each adjudication if the child should remain on the registry and under the supervision of Oregon State Police or be allowed to start over. Starting over with a clean slate could mean their peers, future colleges and schools, potential employers, and future child-care givers for their own families never find out what happened in their past.
But the law is far from perfect. It’s created an imbalance in which offenders who were found to have committed a crime before 2014 are left on the registry, with little possibility of ever being removed. While some are comfortable with sex offenders who committed their crimes as a child staying on the list without recourse, others think the law doesn’t go far enough to protect children — both victims and offenders.
Since that change in the law, the number of juveniles required to register has been greatly reduced. Currently, there are only two juvenile sex offenders on the registry in Lane County and 25 in the state.
But before the law changed, juveniles were automatically added to the registry with little recourse to be removed from the list. What happens to those 187 adult sex offenders who are remain on the registry because of crimes committed as children?
For 38-year-old Thomas Arrowwood of Springfield, that story still is unfolding.
"It's miserable, it's impossible," said Arrowwood, a registered sex offender adjudicated for a sodomy charge when he was 12 years old. "It's worse than being a convicted felon. Any job I applied to when I got out, they said, 'Oh, I see you've got a record, but I can't see what happened because it's a juvenile case so it's sealed. But you are a registered sex offender so ... .' And that was that."
Before the law change, sex offenders had a small window of time in which they were eligible to apply for relief, a costly effort that can include hiring a lawyer, filing paperwork in court and attending hearings. Juvenile sex offenders could apply no less than two years before and no more than five years after their adjudication, or they'd remain on the list forever.
"It was worded pretty poorly and strangely back then," said Marion County Deputy District Attorney Tim O'Donnell in the juvenile division. O'Donnell spoke only for himself and not on behalf of the district attorney's office.
Arrowwood missed that window, he said, because he didn't know about it until it was too late.
"I've been registering for 18 years," he said. "Now, I guess, they say I can never get off the list. I'll be on it forever. I missed my opportunity, and I won't ever be removed."
But not everyone feels that he, or others, should be removed from the registry.
“I think oftentimes in our culture we spend a lot of time ruminating and thinking what happens to an offender and the impact that it has on them,” said BB Beltran, executive director for Sexual Assault Support Services of Lane County.
“What we don’t think about is the impact it has on not just the individual survivors, but their partners and their families. … It’s a domino effect.”
Beltran added that while there is a lot of empathy or pity for a person who made a mistake as a juvenile, “I would like to see the same consideration for both sides.”
A 22-year-old Eugene man named Robert, who The Register-Guard is only identifying by his middle name because he is eligible for relief from registering in the coming months, said he hopes he will be granted a reprieve so he can garner a fresh start. He was adjudicated for a first-degree sodomy charge at the age of 10.
"I will be the first person to say I don't feel like anybody who would (sexually abuse) a kid, like they should know what is right and wrong, they deserve to be on that list," he said. "As a kid, though, we're supposed to be in a new millennium, and I feel like there should be some other option out there than just throwing everyone under the bus and under the same label."
"I am pretty sure that if (my case) was taken care of before I turned 18, or if it never would have happened, I would be in a house with my family, instead of living with my wife and child in a room at my mother-in-law's house, sharing a room with my wife's sister. I've lived with this label since I was 10 years old," Robert said. "I'd be in my own house. My boy would have his own bedroom, and I would be, well, different."
In Lane County, 187 adult sex offenders are on the sex offender registry because of crimes committed as children, representing around 8.5 percent of all Lane County sex offenders. Three of those are women. Statewide, there are around 3,400 adults registered for crimes committed as juveniles, or around 11 percent of statewide offenders.
Sex offenders have been federally required to register with local law enforcement agencies since 1994, when the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act was enacted. It was named for an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was kidnapped in 1989, molested and murdered. Under the law, each state had discretion on what registration information was made public, but dissemination of that information was not required. Two years later, however, Congress amended the act in 1996 with the new Megan’s Law — a law that required law enforcement agencies to release information about registered sex offenders that the agencies deemed necessary in the interest of public safety.
In 2006, the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act — named for the 6-year-old boy who was abducted and murdered in Florida in 1981 — further increased federal registration requirements by categorizing sex offenders into three tiers, with Tier 3 being the most severe and with the most requirements. Tier 3 offenders are required to update their whereabouts every three months for life. Furthermore, failing to register or update information became a felony under the law.
However, Marcy Mistrett, chief executive officer of Campaign for Youth Justice, thinks the 2006 law does not do enough to protect children who have offended. She sees legislation that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed with certain tweaks to the Walsh Act as flawed in that it doesn’t exclude child offenders from proposed increased sanctions.
While some of the proposed changes benefit juvenile offenders — including a reduction in the number of years juveniles would be required to register and exempting certain adults registered as sex offenders for crimes committed as juveniles from from disclosure — the bill has been packaged with other bills that unnecessarily increase sanctions around sex offenses in general and don’t exclude juveniles, Mistrett said.
"Our concern is that teens who are sexting could get caught up in (the new proposed laws). We are working to pull Adam Walsh from the rest of the package," Mistrett said.
Collection rate low
Sex offenders in Oregon are required by law to pay $70 per year to the state, due the month of the offender's birthday, according to the Oregon State Police website. In Lane County, with nearly 2,200 registered sex offenders residing here, that's more than $150,000 in potential revenue.
Oregon, with the highest number of sex offenders per capita than any other state in the nation, has more than 25,000 sex offenders. That's a potential annual revenue of $1.75 million, but the state doesn’t collect that amount because of restrictions on who the state can collect money from. Additionally, a number of sex offenders are considered "out of compliance" and have not paid up, according to the U.S. Marshal's Office who conducted a large-scale bust in the area in 2018 that resulted in 67 arrests.
Those currently requiring supervision cannot be charged the fee, according to Oregon State Police Captain Tim Fox. And although the law would allow for it, those currently incarcerated also are not charged by Oregon State Police. Adult registered sex offenders who were adjudicated as juveniles also are not required to pay the fee. Fox said the state has only collected $208,251 this year from registered sex offenders.
In six years, they’ve collected $1.46 million total, with an average annual collection of $243,959.
“In the past, we have had inconsistent billing practices and no ability to collect if they do not pay,” Fox said. “Collection rate is 12 percent of (the) total 30,000 sex offender registrants if all were eligible to pay the $70 annual fee.”
He said OSP does not collect enough money to cover the cost of the sex offender registry program, “so although there is revenue,” Fox added, “the fees received do not cover costs.”
Beyond the dollar, there are real consequences for living with the label for the offender and the public.
According to Nicole Pittman, vice president and director of the Center on Youth Registration Reform, children adjudicated for sex crimes and required to register as sex offenders are four times more likely to commit suicide and five times more likely to be approached by an adult for sex. However, they only have a 2 percent rate of reoffending nationwide, she said.
"Placing children on the registry has to stop because it's child abuse," Pittman said.
A 22-year-old Eugene man who asked to be identified by his middle name of James in order to keep his employment, which is a condition of his probation, knows all too well about the consequences that continue to emerge in his adult life. James had been adjudicated for inappropriately touching and exposing himself to a family member at the age of 14. In one year, he can apply for relief.
"There is an outside impact of treating everyone with the 'sex offender' label the same," James said. "They're treating everyone as predatory, when I didn't go out and attack someone. I was curious, and I broke rules that I didn't know existed. I am deeply regretful of what I did to this day, but I can't change that."
Nationwide, more than 200,000 of the roughly 900,000 people currently listed on sex offender registries were added to those lists as children, some as young as 8 years old.
Dr. Elizabeth LeTourneau, a researcher and expert on child sexual abuse, testified to the Oregon Legislature in 2013 that the registration of juveniles "fails, in any way, to improve community safety." Among the evidence she cited were rates of reoffense for juvenile sex offenses, as measured by arrests, charges or convictions. Those rates are very low across the country, whether or not youth are required to register, LeTourneau said, adding that “the vast majority — 88 percent to 98 percent, depending upon the study — of registered youth do not reoffend.”
But it does happen.
In Oregon, unlike other states, only about 2.5 percent of registered sex offenders are put into a public database of Tier 3 adult offenders that allow citizens to search by address, city or name. That compares with 100 percent of adult sex offenders available online in Idaho, 75 percent in California and 30 percent in Washington.
The 2.5 percent in Oregon have been determined to be the worst level of sex offender. But it can provide a sense of false security to those living in the state who believe there are no registered sex offenders in their neighborhoods, when in reality there could be several. The full list of adult registered sex offenders, however, is available to the public by request through their local law enforcement agency.
In Lane County, there have been a few examples of juvenile registered sex offenders who reoffended as adults and are now on the Tier 3 list.
- Jordan Christopher Allen, 36, of Springfield, was adjudicated of first-degree felony sexual abuse in 1998 at the age of 16. In 2001, at age 19, he was convicted of third-degree rape. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison and two years of post-prison supervision.
- Jason Bowman, 28, of Eugene, was adjudicated at age 12 of a felony sexual crime. He was again convicted in 2012 of five sex-related crimes, including third-degree rape and third-degree sodomy. He was sentenced to 19 months in prison, six months in jail, and three years of post-prison supervision.
- Thomas Clowdus, 33, of Eugene, was adjudicated at age 12 of first-degree rape. He's been convicted of sex crimes again in both 2009 and 2011. He was given a two-year prison sentence in the first case and a 30-day jail sentence in the second.
"I don't think sex offenders can be fixed, period," said police Sgt. Dave Lewis, who has worked in the Springfield Police Department for more than 30 years. "It's strictly my opinion, but having worked my entire career around this, I don't think sex offenders can be rehabbed.
“One of the only things we can do besides incarceration is to monitor them in some way,” he said. “And anytime someone repeats a sex offense, from a community safety standpoint, we've let the people down. I come at it from the side of the victims. They are stigmatized forever by what has happened to them. Why shouldn't the perpetrator be stigmatized in some way?"
But for an estimated 97 percent of children who never reoffend, labeling a child as a sex offender for life may seem unfair, with serious repercussions that can follow them into adulthood.
Luke Heimlich was named the No. 1 college baseball pitcher in the nation in 2017 and the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and appeared to be on his way to a promising career in Major League Baseball. But just before the draft, he was outed as a registered sex offender, having been convicted as a juvenile in Washington state. After the news broke, he went undrafted in 2017 and 2018.
"One of the great injustices of Luke Heimlich’s situation is that he didn’t have the constitutional rights of an adult when his case was adjudicated, yet now the world condemns him to a life sentence," Kristine Erikson wrote on her website, Justiceforluke.com
A message for comment from Heimlich and his family for this story was not returned.
But there is hope for children adjudicated for sexual offenses.
"The juvenile process in Oregon can work, and it does lead to the reform of many youth," said O'Donnell, the Marion County Deputy DA. "I have seen many, if not most, juvenile sex offenders I have worked with in some capacity go on to obtain meaningful employment, attend college, or otherwise be very successful young adults who I am not aware of engaging in new sexually offending behavior."
Pittman said she will continue to advocate that no child should ever have to register — in her opinion, younger than 25. And while she said she is in favor of any incremental change, Oregon's change in law in 2014 is not enough.
"The registry doesn't work, period," Pittman said."We're failing our children."
This story was done in conjunction with The Center on Media, Crime & Justice, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. Follow Chelsea Deffenbacher on Twitter @ChelseaDeffenB. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.