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Investigators say all sex offenders treated the same, but some studies find female criminals face lighter sentences

BOTTINEAU, N.D. — Last month, a young Bottineau teacher was sentenced to serve about a month and a half in jail, pay $325 in court fees and undergo treatment after admitting to having sexual relations with at least two teenage boys.

Marissa Ashley Deslauriers, born in 1991, pleaded guilty in Bottineau County District Court to two Class A misdemeanor charges of contributing to deprivation of a minor and two Class B misdemeanors of sexual assault. Originally, she faced felony charges that could have resulted in 15 years in prison and $30,000 in fines, but Deslauriers reached a plea deal with prosecutors that resulted in lesser charges and two years of unsupervised probation. She was not required to register as a sex offender.

The case sparked discussion about the way the legal system treats men and women who are convicted of sexual crimes, and if gender has an influence in sentencing.

There are 1,754 registered sex offenders in North Dakota, public records show. Twenty-seven of them are women. A wide range of research supports the theory that men are overwhelmingly more likely to commit sexual assault than women, but research on the differences in the way male and female offenders are treated in the justice system are hard to find.

Dr. Adam Matz, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of North Dakota, said women, overall, tend to receive lighter sentences than men for similar offenses. Much of this is due to perceptions of women as primary caretakers for children.

Matz said the age of the victim and the age of the offender are both taken into consideration with sexual crimes.

"In general, the severity of the case and the person's criminal history are probably the two biggest things in terms of sentencing decisions," Matz said. "And in general sentencing research, you do see the same trend where women tend to get more lenient sentences or are more likely to receive probation."

Matz, who specializes in parole and probation, said he would not downplay probation and its impact on people's lives. Those with little criminal history are more likely to serve lighter sentences.

"Typically with females, particularly with teachers, a lot of times these are first-time offenders. They don't have a criminal history; that's another reason why there might be a disparity there," Matz said.

A study published in 2012 by a doctoral student at Arizona State University found noticeable discrepancies in the sentencing for male and female teachers convicted of having sexual relationships with students older than 15. The study noted many teachers were first-time offenders, which also can lead to lighter sentencing.

A local look

"Our child victims are fortunate to have the child victims advocacy center here in Grand Forks," Jason McCarthy, an assistant state's attorney at the Northeast District Court in Grand Forks, said. "It's kind of a one-stop for victims of child abuse, sexual abuse and neglect."

McCarthy is referring to the Red River Children's Advocacy Center, which operates throughout the Red River Valley. The center has worked with 51 child victims of physical and sexual assault so far this year, said Anna Frissell, director of the advocacy center. Two-thirds of those victims have been female; one-third have been male. In 2015, the center worked with 76 child victims in Grand Forks.

At the center, children are questioned by trained forensic interviewers, with law enforcement in an adjacent room watching the interview.

"We have highly trained interviewers who have been trained to help victims talk about the abuse they endured," Frissell said.

Victims also see a doctor for medical evaluation. Frissell said this must be done quickly to preserve physical evidence. She said the most important role of the doctor is informing children they will be OK, and they are not permanently damaged physically. The center also works to improve the mental health of victims.

"Without intervention, a child victim is likely to suffer chronic illness the rest of their lives," she said.

Working toward justice

Grand Forks Police Department Lt. Brett Johnson, who oversees the criminal investigations bureau, said the investigation process does not account for the gender of the suspect in sexual abuse cases.

"We would refer over the same charges regardless of (if) it's a male or a female," he said.

By and large, Johnson said cases of females sexually abusing males are rare. Regardless of the gender of the suspect or victim, Johnson said how far forward a sexual assault case goes is always victim-driven. If the victims participate in the investigation, charges are likely, but without victim participation, it is difficult for investigators to build a case.

For prosecutors, McCarthy said a number of factors go into what prosecutors request when it comes to sentencing for sex crimes. How old is the victim? How old is the offender? Was the offender in a position of trust? What sexual acts took place? How long did the abuse occur? Were steps taken by the offender to silence the victim? Did the offender cooperate with law enforcement? What do the victims want?

"They're all difficult cases, and they're all extremely sad cases," McCarthy said. "We're dealing with real kids who were subjected to the kinds of things no kid should be subjected to at the hands of a perverse perpetrator."

McCarthy said many child abuse and sexual abuse cases are reported via social services. While he could not comment specifically on the Bottineau case, he did say that often a misdemeanor conviction will not result in sex offender registration.

Female offenders do not always get off easy. Cynthia Kusy, a Tennessee woman who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Grand Forks boy in 2012, was sentenced to 10 years in state prison. Kusy was uncooperative with law enforcement, according to Herald archives, and her victim was known to have a low IQ and emotional issues.

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