Shawn Murphy admits he forced his 11-year-old cousin to have sex with him, but when many of the people who know him in the eastern Iowa town of Russell found out about his crime, they said that since he's done his time and is going through therapy, he should be forgiven.
Maybe that's because Murphy, an 18-year-old senior at Russell Community School, was just 13 when he committed the crime. Maybe it's because Murphy seemed just like any other teenager, until he turned 18 and, in accordance with Iowa law, his name was posted on the state's sex offender registry Web site.
Some parents were angry that they did not know there was a sex offender walking the halls of the school, which is attended by 150 students from pre-K through grade 12. They wanted him thrown out of school and were furious at school officials.
When the school held a meeting to consider the issue earlier this month, many of Murphy's classmates showed up wearing T-shirts with slogans supporting him, and after he spoke about his crime, some hugged him in sympathy.
"I forced my cousin to have sexual intercourse with me," said Murphy, who was convicted in juvenile court of third-degree sexual assault, sent to a sex offender rehabilitation facility, and ordered to go through counseling and register as a sex offender. "I messed up, and I'm truly sorry. And nothing can change that. I hope you guys can see me for who I am, not my past."
That is the difficulty in dealing with any convicted sex offender, but the problem may be particularly troublesome when dealing with teenagers, especially when juveniles -- whether they are violent rapists or an older teen who had consensual sex with a younger boyfriend or girlfriend -- are treated the same way as adults and forced to carry the label of sex offenders.
"It causes a lot of problems and doesn't make much sense," said Gail Ryan of the National Adolescent Perpetrator Network's Kempe Children's Center. "With juveniles, we have pretty strong consensus in the field that we shouldn't be calling kids sex offenders when they're adolescents, when they're still forming their identities."
But severe punishment is important for the victims and their families, said Laura Ahearn, the director of Parents for Megan's Law, a victims' rights organization focused of child sexual abuse victims.
"Justice isn't served unless there is severe punishment for a crime that can ruin a person's life," she said.
However, she said that treatment is also important for juvenile offenders, because there is a chance that it can have an effect on their behavior once they are released from prison.
"It's more palatable for the family of a child sex abuse victim to know the perpetrator is getting treatment when the perpetrator is a juvenile, rather than an adult, because juvenile offenders have a better chance for treatment to have a result," she said. "Most people would agree you can't change a sex preference, so treatment is not going to be effective for a pedophile. No amount of treatment is going to change that."
Besides acting as a warning to the public, labeling an adult as a sex offender may be a useful rehabilitation tool because it clashes with that person's idea of who he is -- serving as a reminder of the horrible thing he has done and thus acting as a deterrent. But in the case of a juvenile, the label could become his self-image, encouraging the youth to repeat the crime.