Sex abuse arrest offers opportunity to learn about juvenile justice

The Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center in Northeast Portland, where a Lincoln student was held after he was arrested and charged with sexual abuse.

Last month, Lincoln High School students, staff and parents were shocked to learn that a 17-year-old boy from the school had been arrested on several charges.

He is facing charges of second-degree sexual abuse, unlawful dissemination of an intimate image, harassment and unlawful delivery of a controlled substance, and causing another to ingest a controlled substance. The Oregonian reported that at least one of his alleged victims was a fellow Lincoln student.

The accused student no longer attends Lincoln.

As the shock wore off, questions began to arise and rumors began to spread.

The Cardinal Times decided it would not attempt to dissect the details surrounding the alleged incident, given the age of those involved and legal concerns surrounding the accused, his alleged victim and the fact that those involved are juveniles.

Instead, reporters interviewed those who could help the newspaper’s readers understand the complexities of the situation.

Legal proceedings for juveniles are complicated and delicate. These cases involve the utmost discretion. The Lincoln administration declined to comment, citing an inability to discuss any police matters.

In order to get a better grasp of the legal situation, we spoke to Judy Swanson, a district attorney in charge of juvenile cases for Multnomah County. She could not acknowledge the existence of the case, but was able to discuss generalities. Inside the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center in Northeast Portland, where Swanson works, photography and recording devices are not permitted.  

Sexual assault is unfortunately a fairly common occurrence. “More than one-quarter of women (27.3 percent) and approximately one in nine men (10.8 percent) have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact in their lifetime” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, most of the time, these events are not addressed, so they can appear to be more rare than they actually are.

“Current research supports the idea that all of the times [people are] sexually abused, only five to ten percent get reported and only two percent of that get adjudicated. People are quite hesitant to disclose or report their abuse,” said Swanson. Adjudicated means going to trial.

In juvenile cases, the language that is used is different throughout the proceedings of the case. The person on trial is referred to as the “youth,” not the “defendant” or the “perp.”

This goes back to origin of juvenile code, which was created to avoid equating juveniles with adults. If someone admits to a charge or is found guilty through trial, the term is “within the jurisdiction of the juvenile case for committing acts that if committed as an adult would be a crime,” as opposed to “convicted.” Also, “sentencing” is called “disposition.”

Swanson outlined the timeline of the investigation. When someone is victimized, they will often not disclose for months to years. Often there is a triggering event that brings the victim forward. This is why the statute of limitations, which limits the period of time after a crime for bringing legal action, starts at the date of disclosure for sex crimes instead of the date of the crime.

When the district attorney reads the report, law enforcement has already investigated the allegation. It is then up to the district attorney to decide to bring the case to trial. They are given 30 days to make that decision. If there are any missing pieces, the case goes back to the detective to get reinvestigated.

“By the time I issue the case, I believe that if it went to trial, I would be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. There are cases where I really believe someone abused someone else but I can’t prove it. That doesn’t usually happen with high school kids because they can articulate what happens,” said Swanson.

Child Abuse Response and Evaluation Services (CARES) is an organization started in the 1980s. The idea behind it was to not retraumatize victims through repeated interrogation. Victims were instead taken to a facility with specially trained staff where statements were recorded to be used in court.

However, in 2004, the Supreme Court case Crawford v. Washington made recorded statements inadmissible because there is no opportunity for cross-examination. The person being accused now has a right to face-to-face confrontation with the victim. Swanson explained that victims now have to testify if requested, which makes it harder to effectively prosecute a case, especially when dealing with minors.

Things get even more complex when the person being accused is also a minor, due to Measure 11. When a detective sends a juvenile district attorney a case involving someone 15 to 17 years old, the attorney decides whether it falls under Measure 11. If charged under Measure 11, a juvenile is tried as an adult.

If they decide that it should fall under the measure, the juvenile attorney then sends it to their adult counterparts with a memo explaining why it should be charged under it. It is then out of the hands of the juvenile courts unless it is determined to not be a Measure 11 offense.

Measure 11 particularly applies to more serious crimes such as murder, manslaughter and rape. Measure 11 was created to enforce mandatory minimum sentences, including some juvenile cases. None of the charges the Lincoln student is facing fall under Measure 11.

Two primary things can happen if someone admits to a charge or is found guilty through trial. He or she can be placed under community supervision and on probation with a probation officer. In such a circumstance, he or she would remain at home, but under more supervision. The other option is that he or she could be committed to the Oregon Youth Authority, where the individual would still remain in the community, but be placed in a residential home for further supervision. Both options are considered types of probation.

Most youth do not go directly to correctional facilities for sex offenses in Multnomah County. If the district attorney determines that the youth cannot remain safely in the community, particularly with repeat offenders, the youth is then sent to a detention facility.

Probation usually lasts 2 ½ to three years, with a maximum of five years for juveniles. In the event that a youth ends up in a correctional facility, the maximum sentence is 10 years, however not past the youth’s 25th birthday.

Concerns have been raised that since the Lincoln case has been open since July, the accused was not charged soon enough. However, this is fairly typical as a district attorney usually must compile a case before filing charges. However, sometimes they don’t have an option.

“If the officer investigating the case says this person committed the crime and it’s not safe for that person to be out, they will arrest immediately and I have to make a case in the next 24 hours,” said Swanson.

If the initial police report does not have enough details, then the district attorney can go back to the detectives and ask for more investigation after filing charges.

But, at the end of the day, prevention is key. According to Swanson, the most effective way to prevent unwanted sexual contact is education. The best programs aim to not only increase  awareness as a potential victim but also to increase everyone’s awareness of what might be going on around them, as well as teaching people that there is no machismo attached to offending someone. Sex education classes also teach people how to disclose and encourage disclosure.

In the end, it’s not about the individual who wants to take advantage, it is the whole culture and group mentality that needs to change, Swanson said.