Colorado’s Strict Sex Abuse Sentencing

There are few allegations that can stir the emotions of the public as sexual assault. Given the emotionally-charged nature of sex abuse, allegations alone can bring about an instant stigma against the accused that they may never be able to escape.

Beyond the stigma, a conviction for sexual assault can also be life altering. For example, everyone convicted of a sex offense must register as a "sex offender." The alleged sex offender's identity will be available on an online database that anyone can access. In addition, interaction between the alleged sex offender and minors is restricted — possibly even between the alleged offender's own siblings or children. Moreover, a person's status as a sex offender may limit the places where he or she can live, such as preventing him or her from living near schools.

However, these restrictions are just the beginning. Sexual assault often carries harsh sentences such as lifetime supervision and even life imprisonment. For example, in Colorado, prison sentences can be quite harsh due to strict sentencing guidelines and the lack of discretion given to judges in setting determinate sentences. Colorado judges can have little control when it comes to the actual time served for sentences in sexual abuse cases.

The guidelines are rigid, and are often drafted for "worst-case scenario" situations. These inflexible rules can create challenging situations for judges.

Examples of Overly Harsh Sex Offense Sentencing: Masse

A recent Colorado case shows how draconian sex crime laws can be. A Broomfield High School teacher and star wrestling coach, Travis Masse, was sentenced by District Judge Thomas Ensor to life in prison, with a possibility of parole at ten years, for having non-forcible sex with a 17-year-old student.

Specifically, Masse was convicted of sexual assault on a child by someone in a position of trust. Since the case involved more than one instance of sexual contact, it constituted a pattern of sexual abuse under Colorado law. Thus, Masse was subject to an "indeterminate" term of incarceration.

An indeterminate sentence means that Masse must complete sex offender treatment before he is eligible for parole. However, the wait for such treatment programs is quite long in Colorado prison. In fact, according to the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board, only 93 of the 1,650 alleged offenders sentenced to prison under the lifetime supervision provisions for sex offenses from 1999 through 2010 have been released.

The victim in the case stated that she felt Masse should be incarcerated for a period of time, but even she didn't wish for Masse to be imprisoned for the rest of his life. However, Judge Ensor has little authority over the actual time Masse will serve. Given the qualifications for parole, almost any sentence can turn out to be a life sentence. In fact, last month, Judge Ensor recognized this issue when he sentenced a Broomfield real estate agent to probation for sexually assaulting a babysitter because he was concerned that indeterminate sentencing would result in a life sentence.

Debate Over State and Federal Sex Crime Laws

The Masse case has sparked debate among the legal community. Some are bothered that the facts specific to the case or the history of a defendant or victim cannot be considered by the judge because the sentencing guidelines give him or her little discretion.

The debate is similar to one that hit national news a year ago. A New York Times article discussed United States District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein's fight against what he considered "unnecessarily cruel" child pornography laws. In one case, he dismissed two convictions that would have put a man behind bars for more than five years.

Weinstein is one of many judges across the country that have fought against harsh state and federal sex crime laws. Sentencing guidelines for child pornography alone have expanded so much in the last decade that they have quadrupled the average prison term.

Accused of a Sex Crime?

Masse's severe life sentence for engaging in non-forcible sex with one of his students illustrates Colorado's strict sex abuse sentencing laws. The severe penalty for sexual assault demonstrates the need to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney if you have been accused of a sex crime in Colorado or anywhere else in the U.S.

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