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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Outside Judge Sharon McCully's courtroom in Salt Lake City. The number of juvenile sex offenders being prosecuted parallels that of adults, and most offenders have been victims of sexual abuse.

He entered the courtroom wearing a forest green T-shirt, jeans, white sneakers and the hint of what someday might be a full mustache. He had a chain wrapped around his waist that secured his cuffed hands in front of him.

He sits before Judge Sharon McCully to be sentenced for sexually molesting his 5-year-old cousin. He is 15.

The number of young sex offenders being prosecuted parallels that of adults. "We are seeing the exact same thing in the juvenile court," she said.

It's one of the crimes where the offenders are as young as 9 years old. Most of them have been on the other side of sexual abuse.

"Just about every juvenile sex offender we have was a victim," McCully said.

The cycle of abuse plays out daily in her courtroom. McCully said she is now seeing the children of people she sentenced for sex crimes years ago. One particular family of eight children all were abused by their father, she said.

"It's not something easily fixable. The effect on the child victims is awful," McCully said, noting the troubled marriages, strained relationships and learning disabilities plaguing this particular family.

McCully knows well the family of the boy who sits before her on this day. She knows about his parents' drug abuse, their neglect, their inappropriate behavior.

"I probably know (his) history better than him," she said.

Though her job is to pronounce judgments on juvenile offenders, McCully said she's not absolutely convinced criminal prosecution is the best way to handle young sex offenders.

Treatment for juvenile sex offenders does provide a glimmer of hope in an otherwise troubling sex abuse arena, said McCully, who has been a judge for 25 years.

In the case of this 15-year-old boy, the prosecutor outlined a long list of aggravating circumstances that he believes call for "secure care," a gentler way of saying kid prison.

Probation hasn't worked nor have several treatment programs. The teenager continually smoked pot and skipped school. He boasted of other things he has done for which he wasn't caught. The most troubling circumstance, however, is his utter lack of remorse for abusing his female cousin.

He told one psychological evaluator, "If I didn't get caught, I could almost be out of the system."

The teen's attorney argued for a lesser sentence. He explained the boy was abused and neglected by his parents.

"Is it a big wonder that he is trying to self-medicate through the use of marijuana?" the boy's defense attorney asked. He contended his client flourished in treatment and never absconded as one report claims. He suggests probation with an intense sex offender treatment regimen.

McCully weighed the two arguments, knowing a young man's life hung in the balance. She is confident that juvenile sex offenders can be successfully treated.

But in this case she notes probation has been an "absolute failure." And she finds the lack of empathy for his victim troubling.

"I am really, really disturbed at the lack of any 'I did something wrong,"' the judge said, adding the teen has no sorrow for his cousin. "Nothing like that. Nothing."

Saying it would be the teen's best chance for success and other victims' best chance for safety, McCully sentenced him to a secure facility. The length of stay is up to the parole board, but it could be at least 18 months.

The boy lowered his head as she announced her decision.

Outside the courtroom, the boy's grandfather isn't surprised at the outcome. He talks about his grandson's difficult childhood. He reveals the boy a year ago or so found his year-older cousin dead after she hanged herself in her bedroom. It was just another thing he had to deal with. But the grandfather didn't make any excuses.

"He doesn't seem to have any self-awareness at all," he said. "All these things happen, but he just seems to be a leaf on the ocean."

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