Key point. A lifetime of supervised release following a 15-year prison sentence did not violate a child sex offender’s legal rights.
* A federal appeals court ruled that sentencing a sex offender to a life term of supervised release did not amount to “cruel and unusual” punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. After having his computer seized by his probation officers, a convicted child molester (the “defendant”) admitted that it contained child pornography. He later pled guilty to felony possession of child pornography.
This was not the first time that the defendant got into trouble for sexual misconduct. A few years earlier he was convicted of two counts of sexual assault for an incident involving two girls, ages nine and thirteen. The victims were playing outside their home when the defendant approached them and asked for hugs. They said “no” and ran away, but the defendant followed them into their home and cornered them in a bedroom. He received a 10-year sentence for these crimes, but obtained supervised release. His supervised release was revoked in 2002, however, because he skipped sex offender treatment sessions and obtained employment at a fair frequented by children.
A federal district court sentenced the defendant to the mandatory sentence of 15 years, but added a lifetime of supervised release following the end of his prison sentence in order to protect the community. In making this determination, the court relied on the defendant’s prior sexual assault conviction and his apparent obsession with child rape, as indicated by the pornography he possessed and his own statements.
The defendant filed a lawsuit claiming that the lifetime of supervised release following his 15-year prison sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
A federal appeals court rejected the defendant’s claim. It noted that the Eighth Amendment forbids “extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime,” and that “it is exceptionally difficult for a criminal to show that his sentence is unconstitutionally disproportionate.” The court noted that for the defendant to succeed he would have to prove that his sentence was grossly disproportionate to his crime. It concluded that he “does not come close” to passing this test:
The defendant committed very serious crimes: sexually assaulting a nine-year-old girl, sexually assaulting a thirteen-year-old girl, and numerous instances of receiving child pornography. Moreover, although supervised release limits a criminal’s liberty and privacy, it is a punishment far less severe than prison. A lifetime of supervised release is not inappropriate for, much less grossly disproportionate to, the grave infractions which he committed …. A life term of supervised release is particularly appropriate for sex offenders given their high rate of recidivism. See H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 107-527, at 2 (noting that “sex offenders are four times more likely than other violent criminals to recommit their crimes,” and that their “recidivism rate does not appreciably decline as offenders age”). The defendant is himself a recidivist and has admitted to having rape fantasies, a factor which the district court correctly found to be indicative of future dangerousness. It is therefore not at all excessive to require the defendant to comply with such supervised release conditions as attending sex offender treatment, avoiding the company of children, and meeting regularly with a probation officer. Accordingly, we conclude that a life term of supervised release is not unconstitutionally disproportionate given the circumstances of this case.
Application. This case illustrates an important point. Convicted child molesters often are subject to a parole or probation agreement that imposes strict limitations on their activities. In many cases these include restricted access to places where minors congregate, including churches. When church leaders are deciding how to respond to the presence of a convicted sex offender in their midst, one important consideration is the terms of an applicable parole or probationary agreement. In some cases, the offender will not be permitted to attend church, or may attend under strict conditions. It is imperative for church leaders to be familiar with all such conditions. U.S. v. Williams, 2011 WL 768082 (9th Cir. 2011).
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