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Bob Dyer: Sex-crime punishments incredibly inconsistent

5-6-15 National:

by Bob Dyer Part-2 of 3

We seem to have no trouble differentiating between a minor fistfight and an assault with a crowbar that turns someone into a vegetable.

But for some reason, we tend to lump all sex crimes into one big category.

On Sunday, I wrote about the firing of Akron RubberDucks public address announcer Scott Foster, who was canned as soon as the team discovered he committed a sexual offense 12 years ago.

In 2003, the former teacher sent sexually explicit emails and made sexual comments to two 13-year-old students at a Medina middle school.

Nobody in his or her right mind would consider that insignificant. As I mentioned Sunday, had I been the father of one of those girls, I probably would have tried to hand down my own sentence. Those kids, now in their mid-20s, quite likely are still battling the psychological repercussions of Foster’s disgusting incursion into their lives.

But what Foster did is not the equivalent of murder.

The term “sexual offender” ranges from people who look at child porn on the Internet to people who rape infants. As Foster himself put it, “This S.O. box that we put everybody into is so broad.”

Far more troubling: the incredibly broad range of sentences handed down for crimes that are essentially the same.

Consider the case of Steven Bittel, the former Nordonia Hills Board of Education president. In April, he was given 11 years for having photos and movies of child pornography on his computer.

Mind you, Bittel never touched anyone.

He never asked anyone to pose for him.

He never sent a sexually suggestive email.

He never shared the photos he downloaded. He merely had them on his computer.

Disgusting? Sure. And as long as people like him want to look at kiddie porn, somebody somewhere will be photographing it.

But 11 years?

By contrast, Bittel was given only three years for firing a gun during a seven-hour standoff with police.

The judge told Bittel that his Internet habit was “inexcusable” for someone who was supposed to be a guardian of children.

Well, yes. But his job had no direct connection to his perverted hobby. Nobody even suggested he had any contact with students.

During the presentence investigation, the court received 27 letters of support for Bittel — the most that his attorney, legendary Akron defense lawyer Jim Burdon, has seen in more than three decades on the job.

“My client was a very intelligent man,” Burdon told me last week.

“Everything he did in his life was for other people. All of the volunteer work. The parish pastor of St. Barnabas church comes in and makes a speech for him because of all the devotion he gave to the church.

“He had 25-30 people in the back of the courtroom, knowing what he did. But they knew who he was.

“It bothers me that he got a penalty like that. But I don’t condemn [visiting Judge Richard D. Reinbold Jr.], because that’s what [judges] are paid to do. I just could never do that.”

Less for more

In the Beacon Journal archives is a 1985 story about another sex case involving Burdon. In that one, a husband and wife in Stow took sexually explicit photos of their 10-year-old daughter and sent them to someone they didn’t know, a fellow who turned out to be working for the Indiana state police.

The woman received probation; the man was jailed for only two months before receiving shock probation. And those people distributed pornographic photos of their own daughter!

So what has changed since then?

“I don’t know,” Burdon responds. “What I do know is that there is no consistency whatsoever from court to court. That’s within the county as well as other places.”

It certainly didn’t help Bittel that his courtroom was packed with reporters. What judge wants to be accused of being soft on child porn?

“I don’t think there’s any doubt [that more publicity results in longer sentences],” Burdon says. “Judges do what they believe they should do, as well as what their experience dictates, as well as what the general public expects out of a certain case.

“I don’t know that it’s wrong, but I know it’s true.”

Stunning contrast

Compare Bittel’s sentence to the one given last summer to Christopher Pelloski, a prominent pediatric cancer physician in Columbus who had accessed child porn online. His penalty: one year and one day.

More than 4,000 days for Bittel; 366 days for Pelloski. For the same crime.

Just 13 months before Bittel’s sentencing, Richard Rudman, a music teacher at St. Mary’s School in Akron, got four years and 11 months for his sex offense: persuading a 12-year-old girl to take nude photos of herself and send them to him.

In other words, a teacher who solicited nude photos from his own student got less than half the prison time of a school board president who downloaded photos that already existed.

That’s insane.

This subject is worth a long look, particularly at a time when Akron leaders are spending hours and hours discussing ways to get former felons back into the mainstream as self-sustaining, law-abiding taxpayers.

Recidivism rates for sexual offenders are significantly lower than I thought. Although the numbers vary greatly by the type of offense, in general, repeat sex crimes are less frequent than nonsex crimes.

One large-scale study from the late 1990s seems to show that only 5.3 percent of “sex offenders” were re-arrested for a sex crime within three years of their release. A closer look, however, reveals that the study involved only “violent offenders” — namely, rapists, sexual assaulters and child molesters.

The Scott Fosters of the world would not qualify for that study. Nor would peeping toms, exhibitionists, people who take and post photos of naked children on the Internet or would-be predators trying to lure kids into meeting them.

On Sunday, we’ll take a detailed look at the stats and try to figure out why some offenders re-offend and others don’t. by Bob Dyer

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