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Compounding a tragedy

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Claire Luten can be forgiven for not knowing what to do with Chad Routenberg, the 19-year-old who five years ago raped an 11-year-old girl in the stairwell of their middle school. Since then, while serving time at the Dozier School for Boys, Routenberg violated his probation by committing a sexual offense on a younger boy at the school. School records reported he even fondled females who came to visit him.

In Florida, a state that stopped funding its sexual-offender rehabilitation programs in 1989, there is no good solution for someone such as Routenberg. The path the judge chose, however, absolutely is the wrong one.

Luten inappropriately allowed her actions to be driven by her emotions. "You scare me to death," she told Routenberg before sentencing him this month. She decided that even though she wasn't sure her sentence was right or legal, the only thing to do with him was to put him in prison for the rest of his life.

Make no mistake. What Routenberg did is despicable; his victims' lives have been tragically changed. Psychologists determined that Routenberg did not respond to therapy while at Dozier and had difficulty even recognizing he had a problem.

But the point made by other therapists, and by the governor's Task Force on Juvenile Sexual Abuse and Crimes, is that Florida is woefully lacking in its ability to deal with juvenile sex offenders. "The complete lack of policy, support and leadership in addressing this problem was appalling and frightening," the task force concluded. "While this program is better than most non-specific treatment programs, it falls short of the standards recommended for juvenile sex-offender treatment."

In other words, Chad Routenberg has not had access to treatment that could have made a difference.

This year the Legislature passed measures, shepherded by Rep. Shirley Brown, D-Sarasota, chairwoman of the juvenile offenders task force, that will add 223 treatment spaces for juveniles, including a 25-slot intensive program in Pinellas County. Another newly approved measure will require psychological assessment of every adjudicated sex offender by a person with specific training in juvenile sexual abuse.

These are important improvements that could have given a seriously troubled 14-year-old a chance, had they been available to him. Therapist Don Sweeney, who interviewed Routenberg for the defense, said that even now, on the edge of adulthood, Routenberg could be helped by intensive rehabilitative treatment. Instead, Sweeney said, in prison without treatment, "he'll be four times the handful he is now."

Luten's sentence far exceeds state guidelines and likely is to be appealed. In the meantime, Routenberg will get the chance to start learning prison life _ learning, as Sweeney puts it, "that raping, lying, conniving and manipulating people is how you get along."

Routenberg should pay for his crimes. But he might have been helped at the same time. Instead, true to Florida form, our inadequate corrections system only is compounding a tragedy.