February 17, 2005 News » Cover Story


Colorado's sex offenders face some of the toughest laws in the country. But how just is the system?

click to enlarge 7d12_cover-16535.gif

Douglas Hugh Chadwick did the unthinkable.

The 45-year-old father, after a night of drinking, got in bed with his 15-year-old daughter at his Colorado Springs home and sexually assaulted her.

He was arrested, found guilty and spent five years in state prison.

Derick Meggison, 19, did something stupid. During a verbal confrontation with three women acquaintances, Meggison, fully clothed, grabbed his crotch and said something crude. One of the women called the police, and Meggison was booked for public indecency.

Meggison and Chadwick share a common bond: they are convicted sex offenders. By state law, they are required to register on Colorado's Sex Offender Registry, a list of the 8,173 people who have been convicted of a sex crime.

The list includes 7,013 men, 967 boys, 148 women and 45 girls and represents a figure that has more than doubled since 1998. That year, Colorado laws were dramatically reshaped to create some of the toughest in the nation. Today, roughly 1,000 registered sex offenders live in Colorado Springs.

Regardless of the severity of their crimes or whether they were sentenced to prison, each is subjected to nearly identical rigorous testing, monitoring and public scrutiny.

Many of Colorado's convicted offenders have committed heinous crimes, notes Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent in Charge Steve Johnson. And, he said, with few exceptions they will remain, throughout their lives, a threat to public safety and in need of close supervision.

"They're certainly the most high-risk offenders in the community," Johnson said.

However a growing number of professionals have reservations about a system that lumps together the most serious offenders with those whose crimes were far less severe.

"The net has been cast so broadly that we've snared people who quite honestly shouldn't be considered sex offenders," said Bill Martinez, a public defender who has represented juvenile sex offenders in Colorado Springs.

Denver defense attorney Phil Cherner says the sex offender lists -- which are open to public scrutiny -- are mean-spirited. He notes that there are no databases stating where bank robbers, shoplifters, or even murderers live.

"The whole concept is ideological," Cherner said. "There are so many sex offenders [and] you don't learn anything by finding out where they are. They're all around us."

Ray Leidig, a forensic psychiatrist with more than four decades of experience working with sex offenders in Colorado and Washington, likens this state's monitoring and treatment regimen of sex offenders to George Orwell's novel about thought control, 1984.

"The disturbing thing is that the community has no knowledge or sense of what is done to limit the risk of sex offenders," Leidig said.

Broad range of offenders

The range of offenses it takes to make it onto Colorado's registry is broad: Convicted rapists, child molesters and habitual offenders are on the list. So are people who are caught having sex in prison and people who indecently expose themselves. Anyone considered "promoting obscenity" to a minor can be put on the list, as can an 18-year-old who has sex with someone who is not yet of age.

Once people are convicted as sex offenders in Colorado, they face a battery of requirements and remain on the list, on average, somewhere between 10 to 20 years. More than 600 offenders are currently required to register their whereabouts for the rest of their lives -- some as frequently as every three months.

In addition, all offenders must sign a lengthy agreement and submit to stringent monitoring and a treatment regimen that has been devised by the 21-member state Sex Offender Management Board.

click to enlarge Douglas Hugh Chadwick
  • Douglas Hugh Chadwick

They must submit their DNA. Depending on the individual, their movements may be tracked with global-positioning devices. Their use of the Internet may be closely monitored at home and at work.

Sex offenders cannot be employed anywhere where children might go, including McDonald's. They must agree to avert their eyes from children even if their offense did not involve a child.

"It's a long process with many requirements," said Scott Smith, an El Paso County probation officer who manages 40 sex offenders. "The goal is to help the offender and protect society. ... They've got to change their life patterns."

Offenders also agree to confrontational group therapy and occasional lie-detector tests, meant to force them to be truthful with a team of probation or parole officers and therapists. In such sessions, offenders can be asked about their past and present sexual history as well as any current sexual thoughts.

Thinking improperly about sex

Additionally, male offenders must submit when asked to a machine called a plethysmograph. The controversial device measures physical sexual arousal to non-pornographic pictures and sounds of children and adults and includes scenarios involving authority and power, says Paul Isenstadt of Southwest Consulting, a firm that the state pays to conduct the tests.

The plethysmograph's use in criminal trials is barred. However, Isenstadt maintains that the machine aids probation officers and therapists in identifying areas where an offender might start thinking improperly about sex -- which can lead to criminal behavior.

As a result of the tests, some offenders have been given olfactory aversion treatment -- made to associate unpleasant smells with their sexual thoughts, Isenstadt said.

Isenstadt may have full confidence in the machine, but Leidig, who has worked with Colorado's corrections programs and was chairman of the state's parole board from 1975 to 1981, questions the effectiveness of such devises for monitoring and treating offenders.

"The danger of using it is false positives," Leidig said. "People get anxious. People get upset using it over and over again. This is a test of the chemistry of the body. If your system is charged up in any way and you're anxious or angry or upset, you're going to come up with false positives on particularly sensitive questions."

The pictures shown during plethysmograph tests can predispose anyone, not just sex offenders, to have some level of arousal, Leidig says.

"They'll show a picture of a woman, partly dressed lying on a bed," he said. "That's hardly neutral."

Leidig added that people have dozens, if not hundreds, of sexual thoughts daily.

As a therapist, he is also concerned the regimen could damage some offenders -- particularly those who committed minor crimes. He said many are forced into lonely lives after conviction, making it harder for them to turn their lives around. All but a handful of offenders are barred from living with their families if there are children under 18 in the home -- even if their crime did not involve a child or physical contact with another person.

He's also concerned that probation officers, not therapists, have the ultimate decision-making authority when it comes to working out specifics with offenders. This makes it harder for therapists to do their jobs.

"The deal is to figure which ones are a threat to the public, and hone in on those," Leidig said. "There are others that are one-time offenders, they are opportunity offenders, and the punishment of being picked up and arrested is likely to stop them from ever committing the crime again."

Similarly, Cherner has legal reservations with the system, including a person's right to remain silent. Specifically, he notes, sex offenders who refuse to testify or maintain their innocence -- but who are nonetheless convicted -- would then be forced to admit guilt during the therapy.

"If you refuse this treatment, you face going to prison," Cherner said. "It's a no-win."

The hunt for the missing

By Colorado law, sex offenders must register within five days of their release from prison. It is a felony to fail to register, and people who don't are likely to face additional prison time.

click to enlarge Derick Meggison (above) and Douglas Hugh Chadwick - are both registered sex offenders, despite differences in - the severity of their crimes.
  • Derick Meggison (above) and Douglas Hugh Chadwick are both registered sex offenders, despite differences in the severity of their crimes.

But many simply run instead. Currently, 540 of Colorado's 8,173 offenders are listed as having "failed to register" their whereabouts, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's Web site at

http://sor.state.co.us . Many of those who fail to register are eventually found, but at any given time, the CBI has active warrants for 120 offenders who did not register.

"It's no surprise that a lot of them want not to just wipe the slate clean, but get off the slate entirely," Leidig said.

Take Chadwick, for example, who spent five years in prison after he assaulted his 15-year old daughter. Chadwick was released three years ago, said his wife, Deborah Chadwick, and prison programs hadn't done much to help him. Within two weeks of his release, the state's sex offender system drove him away, she said.

"He didn't want to go back to prison," she said. "All the requirements were too much for him."

Deborah Chadwick has heard he might be in Cañon City, New Mexico, Texas or Florida. But no one knows for sure -- not even the CBI, which considers unregistered offenders, including several rapists, among the most threatening criminals to the public because they are living outside the system.

'Laws were pretty loose'

Lawmakers around the country began taking a tougher stance on sex offenders in the wake of the 1994 murder of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was viciously raped and murdered by a child molester who lived in her neighborhood.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed "Megan's law," mandating that each state create a sex offender registry. Since then, Colorado lawmakers, like politicians in other states, have added to or strengthened sex offender laws to varying degrees.

While Megan's law required all 50 states to have sex offender registration programs, the system was rife with loopholes that favored offenders, says Sen. Norma Anderson, a Lakewood Republican. Anderson has consistently spearheaded efforts to strengthen Colorado's supervision and public awareness of sex offenders.

"The laws were pretty loose on how we implemented," she said.

Leidig and other critics of the system say politicians get tougher year to year because they can appeal to voters' worst fears about offenders. Those who don't talk tough and support stronger laws can be easily ridiculed during elections, critics say.

Take, for example, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, formerly Attorney General for the State of Colorado. During his campaign last fall, Salazar advocated expanding public access to sex offender lists. Still he was attacked in TV ads by opponent Pete Coors for being soft on offenders. At issue was a 2001 court ruling in which 71 sex offenders received early release from prison. At the time, Salazar vigorously opposed the early release. But he lost when the state Supreme Court found sex offender laws were poorly written and couldn't be used to deny parole to the offenders.

The loophole was quickly fixed, Anderson said. And once stronger laws are in place, lawmakers rarely argue to loosen them.

"Honestly, I have trouble sympathizing with them," says Sen. Ron Tupa, a Boulder Democrat who has supported laws toughening penalties for sex offenders.

In 1998, the laws regarding sex offenders began to dramatically change in Colorado. Those who were considered the worst offenders were placed on lifetime supervision. In addition, a special treatment system for sex offenders was created. By 2002, public access to the state's Sex Offender Registry was expanded.

Anderson said she and other lawmakers were inspired by a 1997 report, "Managing Sex Offenders in the Community."

Developed by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, the report determined that sex offenders are, except in the rarest of cases, incurable. Among their findings was one that rapists reported seven crimes over their lifetimes and exhibitionists admitted more than 500 incidents.

"It found that sex offenders are not able to reform," Anderson said. "The more you thought about it, the more it was about keeping control of offenders. That's what we do.

"When the Department of Corrections admits them, some offenders confess up to 200 crimes."

click to enlarge Sen. Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, led the charge in - strengthening Colorados sex offender laws.
  • Sen. Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, led the charge in strengthening Colorados sex offender laws.

New research, new findings

But newer research disputes the longstanding belief that nearly all sexual predators offend again and again if they are not somehow restrained.

According to a recent state study conducted by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, many offenders don't commit any crimes within several years of an original offense. About 19 percent of rapists offend again within four to five years; about 13 percent of child molesters re-offend within the same period.

Other research further confounds the mindset on recidivism, or rate of repeat offenses. Frank Dubofsky, a former Boulder district judge who now defends sex offenders, cites a study for the Canadian government completed last year. It found there is only a 13.7 percent recidivism rate among sex offenders. And many of those who re-offend don't commit a sex crime.

"The [Colorado] Legislature may have been misinformed on this issue when it provided for lifetime probation and four years to life sentences," Dubofsky wrote in the Boulder bar's November, 2004, newsletter. "Both judges and probation officers may have been misled by this inaccurate recidivism information to make ultra-conservative analysis."

Indeed, even the system's strongest proponents admit such findings would challenge the major assumptions underpinning Colorado's system.When she was told of the findings from the recent study, Anderson was stunned.

"Boy, that sure surprises me," she said. "Our understanding is completely different."

Anderson speculated that one reason the results of the Canadian study might be different is cultural differences between Americans and Canadians.

Jill McFadden, program administrator for the Sex Offender Management Board, said she wasn't aware of the research.

"I haven't seen that," she said, adding that the board is constantly interested in reviewing research to improve its operation.

Case of mistaken identity

Meanwhile, a growing number of sex offenders remain behind bars simply because there's no treatment available, according to an annual report released last November. Hundreds of offenders are on a wait list for treatment and can't qualify for parole until they get it.

The problem is money. Between 2001 and 2004, funding for sex offender treatment declined from $2.58 million to $2.18 million, including a 15.5 percent reduction in staff positions.

All this in a period when sex offenders in the prison system rose from approximately 3,875 to about 4,280, or about 22 percent of the inmate population, according to data provided by state prison administrators. There are currently approximately 330 sex offenders receiving treatment, but 950 are eligible.

"It's not surprising there were cuts, there have been cuts everywhere," said Tupa of the state's budget. "But these cuts were misguided because they open the door to more long-term problems."

The system is expected to experience additional financial strains from a rising population of offenders, especially those requiring lifetime supervision. The report didn't estimate the long-term costs to taxpayers.

While the Legislature has cut funds for sex offenders, some, like Rep. Dale Hall, R-Greeley, are still pushing for additional laws to crack down on sex offenders.

This year, Hall introduced a bill to expand public access to sex offender registrations. Currently, CBI's Web site lists sexually violent predators, multiple offenders and those who fail to register.

In addition, "communities" have access to lists detailing the sex offenders among them. Pikes Peak Community College, for example, posts online the names of 23 students who were convicted of sexual offenses. And residents of Colorado Springs can find out the names and addresses of the convicted offenders in the city -- including juveniles -- by purchasing a computer CD for $15.

Widefield resident Robert Berner has mixed feelings about the lists. On one hand, he says they provide important information about offenders. On the other, he is sometimes personally confused with someone else for being a sex offender.

click to enlarge Robert Gordon Berner is one of many whose appearance - on the sex offenders list causes problems for others.
  • Robert Gordon Berner is one of many whose appearance on the sex offenders list causes problems for others.

That's because another Robert Berner -- middle name Gordon -- is listed as a sex offender.

Robert Berner -- the man who has committed no sex crimes -- has the middle name George. Because of his name, the police have stopped by his home, looking for a criminal. Sometimes, Berner says, he encounters problems while going through routine background checks.

"Please don't get me mixed up with him," he said.

Working, or not

So is the system working or not? It depends on whom you ask.

"I trust the process," probation officer Scott said. "My experience is that the defense attorneys do an outstanding job representing those guys and the DA's Office does an equally outstanding job."

Anderson doesn't expect the Legislature to review the state's treatment of sex offenders. That responsibility, she said, belongs to those state officials employed by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice -- the same people who provided research and recommendations that created the current laws.

A report by English and others in December of 2003 concluded that the sex offender management system was an overwhelming success with few problems.

The report cited a "recent study" that tracked sex offenders released from prison. It found that offenders on parole who received support and treatment were 40 percent less likely to get arrested for a violent crime within 12 months of their release.

Martinez, the public defender, also sits on the Sex Offender Management Board where he is the sole defense attorney. He has this to say about the system: "I think it's draconian."

Consider, for example, Meggison, the 19-year-old convicted of public indecency for grabbing his crotch during an argument with three women. Meggison says he lives in fear since being tagged as a sex offender.

"I don't even want to get a speeding ticket," he said. "I'd rather just stay at home all day and not risk anything."

He said his life has come crashing down since his conviction last summer -- the result of a plea bargain. He can't get an apartment because he can't find a landlord willing to rent to sex offenders. He worries that he will be "outed" once he gets into college and that afterward his chances of getting a job will be reduced.

"I'm not a dangerous, violent person," he said. "Although this list makes me out to be one."

For the next three years, Meggison must register his whereabouts with the state.

Addressing the real problem

It's cases like Meggison's that leads Martinez to criticize the law as being steeped in cultural taboos rather than addressing the real problem. The problem, Martinez says, is that values and perceptions about sexuality, particularly among impressionable young people, is always changing in a world filled with sexual images meant to hype products.

"We're a very sexualized society and that makes our kids more complicated," he said. "It's not like it was maybe 20 years ago. ... The statute doesn't appreciate the complexities of our society."

But the consequences of a high school student inappropriately touching another, or for an 18-year-old man with a girlfriend who is a few years younger, have never been more ominous.

"These have the same collateral consequences as someone who perpetrates an offense on a child," Martinez said.

Martinez hopes in light of cases like Meggison's, the Sex Offender Management Board will consider more flexibility in how sex offenders are monitored and treated.

For his part, Leidig says it would be a mistake for Colorado to keep strengthening its sex offender laws. Instead, he'd like to see the federal government take a second look at how the nation's roughly 390,000 sex offenders are handled. Perhaps Colorado's system could be used as an example of one extreme, he said.

"It's clear to me we have to document what works, what has promise, and what doesn't work," he said.

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