Effort To Oust Boulder Judge Highlights Debate Over Sentencing Of Sex Offenders

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Photo: CU Boulder campus (iStock)
The campus of the University of Colorado Boulder.

When Rebecca Cales of Denver heard about a judge's decision this summer to sentence a former CU Boulder student to probation instead of prison for sexual assault, she was outraged. She launched a petition drive to remove Boulder District Judge Patrick Butler from the bench. Her effort has garnered 82,651 signatures so far.

The 2014 assault involved Austin Wilkerson, a sophomore at the time, and freshman Kendra Heuer, who had been drinking heavily. Wilkerson reportedly promised Heuer he'd take care of her, but instead took her to his house and sexually assaulted her.

The case highlights what critics say is an unintended consequence of Colorado's 1998 Lifetime Supervision Act, the law under which Austin Wilkerson was sentenced. It was designed to ensure that sex offenders get treatment in prison as a condition of their release and that those who don't complete treatment remain locked up. But because of waiting lists to get into treatment programs, critics say many sex offenders -- even those who are low-risk -- end up spending far longer in prison than their actual sentences require.

Critics also say they believe that in some cases judges choose probation instead of prison because they fear if they don't, offenders like Wilkerson will languish in prison for decades, or even for life. Many have urged lawmakers to adjust the law to give judges more discretion when they sentence sex offenders to prison.

Cales says she started the petition drive because the incident felt close to home: She too went to college in Colorado and had spent nights out drinking with friends. She, too, had done some dumb things. The only thing that was different, she says, was that none of the male students she encountered tried to assault her.

Cales hasn't decided yet what to do with the signatures, though she's considering presenting the issue to lawmakers during the upcoming legislative session. She says while the legislature is unlikely to impeach the judge, she wants to bring more attention to a sentence she believes is too lenient.