Of Sex Offenders, Sentencing, and Suicide

Dear Judge G. Todd Baugh,

It’s been about a month since the height of the media attention on the less-than-minimal sentence you gave to teacher Stacey Rambold for violating the terms of a plea deal on charges of rape stemming from a sexual relationship he had at his age of 49 with then-14-year-old Cherice Morales.  In some baffling…uh…I guess you’d call it legal reasoning, you expressed that Rambold had suffered enough as a result of being under the “control” of Cherice, who committed suicide just shy of her 17th birthday in 2010.

I don’t want to devote too much time to going over old ground that plenty of other people have covered, like about your use of ridiculous sexist stereotypes, and your blame-the-victim mentality.  What I really want to do, Judge Baugh, is kick a few ideas your way, from a clinical perspective, in the hopes that you might understand Mr. Rambold’s behavior and how and why it led up to his appearance in your courtroom in late August.  Since Rambold just completed his grueling 30-day sentence yesterday, there’s a possibility that he is going to land back in your courtroom on appeal of that sentence.  So let’s just call this a teachable moment.

In handing out a 30-day (of 15-years) sentence, when prosecutors had pushed for ten years (of 20), you argued that Rambold had already been punished enough.  You lamented Mr. Rambold’s loss of his job, loss of his teaching license, loss of his house, and loss of his wife, as well as Mr. Rambold having to suffer the “Scarlet Letter of the Internet” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.  Hester Prynne didn’t get in trouble for having sex with one of her teenage students.  And Mr. Rambold, unlike Prynne, did not try to protect his sexual partner.  If protecting Cherice was his goal, Rambold would have accepted his responsibility and taken a plea deal from the beginning, to keep Cherice from the threat of being grilled in a courtroom.  (I could go into a lot more detail with the literary comparison/contrast here, but let’s just leave it at that).

Now, it’s weird that you consider Mr. Rambold’s loss of his wife and his house as punishments he received for having engaged in the rape of a minor.  What happened between Rambold and his wife as a result of his sexual relationship with a student (and whatever other factors were involved) has nothing to do with any punishment handed out by the courts.  There are plenty of sex offenders who have partners or spouses who stick by them, and plenty whose wives/partners leave them, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Likewise, Mr. Rambold’s loss of his house is not a punishment handed out by the court for having violated laws against having sex with underage girls.  I’m guessing Mr. Rambold lost his house either in the divorce from his wife, or as the result of losing income.  But either way, that has nothing to do with the sanctions of the court for committing a sexual offense.

Some of the specific sanctions that came directly as legal consequences of Rambold’s actions, like losing his teaching license, are clearly spelled out in the law, and for reasons I think most people would agree are necessary.  Perhaps you disagree, Judge Baugh.  Perhaps you do not feel that teachers owe it to their students, the families of those students, and the community at large to steer clear of sexual relationships where there is a vast age, power, and maturity gap.  Perhaps you think that teachers should be able to have sex with 14-year-old students, so long as they pick the “mature” ones.

Perhaps, Judge Baugh, you even think Mr. Rambold should have his teaching credentials restored, and that he should be placed back in a high school.  But from the standpoint of his pathology, he already broke down his internal barriers that might have kept him from engaging in sex with minors/students.  And those barriers don’t really ever get put back together in full.  They can be patched up a bit.  People like Rambold can learn to stay well away from situations where they’ll end up having to rely on those damaged barriers to keep them out of trouble.  But Rambold’s barriers almost certainly won’t hold if he is put back in among teens in a position of authority and trust.

And speaking of being in among teens, Judge Baugh, you didn’t think that it was all that important that Rambold was hanging out, unsupervised, with minors.  From what I can tell, you rationalized this away (or let Mr. Rambold’s lawyer rationalize this away) as being a non-issue because the minors in question were relatives of Mr. Rambold.  Now, from a clinical standpoint, that may or may not make a difference to whether he would re-offend against those particular children.  But it’s not considered a good idea to leave someone who offended against minors in a situation where that offender is alone with minors, relatives or not.

Just a little question, Judge Baugh, would you leave your underage relatives in the care of Mr. Rambold?  Here’s a hint from the treatment perspective: the correct answer is “No.”

And, Judge Baugh, you indicated that you weren’t too concerned that Rambold’s repeated rules violations led his treatment provider to kick him out of the program—you know, the treatment program Rambold agreed to attend as a condition for avoiding prison.  I’m guessing you’re not aware that failing to comply with treatment is considered an acute risk factor for re-offense.  Or maybe you are aware of how risk assessments work, since you were sure that Mr. Rambold was doing just fine because he had been rated as “low-risk to re-offend.”

But you know what?  Almost all non-violent (the ones who groom victims into compliance, rather than forcing them into sex) and non-hands-on offenders are considered “low risk to re-offend.”  Contrary to popular belief, sex offenders (again, of the non-violent sort) have a low rate of recidivism once they’ve been caught.  And that recidivism rate drops even lower with treatment.

A funny thing about those ratings, though, is that the ratings are generally predicated on the assumption that the offender’s behavior is actually going to match up with the information used to obtain the risk-level rating.  In other words, the rating is only as good as the information used to obtain the rating (and the quality of the rating tool, and the ability of the rater to use the tool correctly).  For instance, when the evaluator is doing the risk assessment, if it is assumed that the offender is not going to be left unsupervised with minors (which should be a given for anybody in Rambold’s situation), but then Rambold is left unsupervised around minors, then that rating loses more than a smidge of its reliability.

I also noticed, Judge Baugh, that you didn’t seem to think it was such a big deal that Mr. Rambold failed to show up for multiple sessions with his treatment provider.  So, Judge Baugh, when people are scheduled for court dates in your courtroom, is it important to you that they actually show up?  Also, how do you proceed with cases when involved parties aren’t there?  I’m guessing that things don’t turn out in favor of the people who don’t appear for their court dates.  So, that’s kind of the same thing that goes on when a sex offender doesn’t show up for treatment sessions—it doesn’t work out in his favor.  Or at least it’s not supposed to.

It’s also quite difficult for a treatment provider to get a feel for what’s going on with a client who fails to show up for appointments.  It’s considered kind of important when you, as a treatment provider, are supposed to be holding an offender accountable for his behavior, but that behavior includes skipping treatment—you know, because skipping treatment isn’t really considered being accountable.  Believe me, nobody wants that kind of liability.  This is why most states, including your home state of Montana, have laws that allow for offenders to be thrown into jail and/or prison when they violate the terms of their plea deals.

As a treatment provider, do you know what else makes it difficult to keep tabs on an offender?  Lies and lying.  Maybe you weren’t aware, but offenders lying to their treatment providers is considered another one of those things that moves an offender away from a “low risk to re-offend” rating.  And Rambold lied to his treatment provider, or rather, failed to tell his treatment provider that he was in a sexual relationship with a new girlfriend.

Now, generally speaking, having a committed relationship is considered a good thing in terms of risk assessment of sex offenders.  But, having a sexual relationship with someone without telling your treatment provider is, in technical language, a no-no.  This is for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, the treatment provider needs to know certain key things about the new partner, you know, like if she has children around.  Also, it’s considered important that any new partners are aware of the offender’s background so that they don’t do things like let the offender hang around the partner’s underage relatives unsupervised.  There are a lot of other potentially problematic factors here, like whether the partner is of an appropriate age, or if the partner has a history of trouble with the law, drugs, drinking, domestic violence, abuse as either a victim or perpetrator, and so on.

Now, just so you know, I work with sex offenders, and I’m not a really big “throw ’em in prison type”—at least not when it comes to offenders who take their responsibilities seriously and don’t screw around with their treatment.  But you might guess that I’m a bit sensitive about offenders who treat the whole thing like a joke, as if they don’t have to follow the rules.  I would think that as a judge, people who fail to follow the rules would bother you too, even if you don’t take all of this clinical info into consideration.

But I do hope you take the clinical information into consideration, because Rambold didn’t just violate the rules once or twice.  He violated them on numerous occasions.  And the rules he violated were, in treatment terms, kind of a big deal.  If this were basketball, this wouldn’t be traveling.  It would be Rambold driving a car onto the court, parking it under the basket, climbing up on top of the car to stuff the ball through the hoop, then flipping off the referee while Rambold’s coach explains to the referee that it’s okay for him to act that way, and gets the referee to agree.

So, Judge Baugh, a girl was abused, then shamed, then stressed to the point where she thought killing herself was a viable option, then shamed and blamed some more in your courtroom years after her death.  And even if you view Cherice as fully responsible for taking her own life (and, believe me, I could hammer you with a bunch more clinical info on that count), and even if you (completely ludicrously) view Cherice as equally “in control” of the sexual relationship she had with Rambold, Rambold completely failed to take his responsibilities seriously.  He was given the opportunity to dodge a lengthy stay in prison so long as he engaged in treatment in good faith.  He didn’t do that.

So, Judge Baugh, if Rambold ends up back in your courtroom on appeal, I would urge you to take the aforementioned clinical (and other) concerns into consideration when you decide how to amend your earlier judgment.  And whatever happens, I would urge you not to help Rambold or any other sex offenders minimize and justify their actions—they’re already pretty damn good at that on their own.