April 14, 1999
By Jim Krane
NEW YORK (APBnews.com)
-- Most criminals mellow with age. Even the most violent young mugger or drug dealer usually abandons his life of crime by the age of 43, corrections authorities say.
But sexual predators are different, those authorities warn. As a child molester or violent rapist matures into old age, his urge to engage in illegal sex remains acute, sometimes even growing stronger.
And, contrary to popular impressions, most of the country's oldest prisoners aren't multiple murderers serving life sentences for heinous crimes committed in their youth. Often, the very oldest are sex offenders imprisoned relatively recently and considered too dangerous to parole.
In fact, in its analysis of the country's oldest prisoners, APBnews.com found more convicted of sex crimes than any other offense. Four-fifths of these older sex offenders have spent less than a decade in prison on their current offense, meaning they were arrested and convicted at a relatively old age.
Only one of the sex offenders in APBnews.com's database, 88-year-old Texan Willie B. Williams, arrived in prison earlier than 1980. Williams, convicted of rape, burglary and drug possession, began his sentence in 1956.
More than a quarter of Ohio's older prisoners are sex offenders. In Wisconsin, the total runs to 30 percent.
"You're not going to see a lot of governors pardoning people like that," said Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Matt Davis.
Dangerous old men A rapist, child molester or sexual exhibitionist can be dangerous until 70 or 80 years of age or more. The old rules used to predict recidivism rates don't work with sex offenders, said Tony Streveler, supervisor of sex offender programs for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
"You don't burn out from it," said Streveler.
In a 1997 study, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that released rapists were more than 10 times as likely as ex-cons charged with other crimes to be rearrested for rape. Convicted sex offenders were 7.5 times as likely as other ex-convicts to be rearrested for sexual assault.
Parole boards treat sex cases gingerly, regularly denying release to infirm 80- and 90-year-olds. And, as states tighten anti-crime laws, sentencing statutes for sex crimes are getting special attention. For these reasons, aging sex offenders form the oldest bloc of prisoners in the country.
One predator's past
In Wisconsin, the case of 94-year-old Ellef J. Ellefson shows that prison time may do little to rehabilitate a sex offender.
Ellefson, currently serving time at Jackson Correctional Institute on charges of sexual assault and sexual assault on a child, arrived in the prison in 1990, when he was 86.
But Ellefson, who declined to be interviewed, has a history of sex convictions dating back to 1937, when he was in his 30s. Records provided by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections illustrate a predatory past.
Although the names of Ellefson's crimes changed over the years -- reflecting an evolution in judicial understanding of the crime -- Ellefson's victims all were children; some were acquaintances, some not, Streveler said.
The root of the problem, Streveler said, is that sex offenders feel innate desires for sex outside the realm of societal acceptability. Unlike a purse snatcher or burglar, a sex offender's cravings can't normally be stanched by imprisonment or counseling.
"Sex drive is one of the most powerful drives we have, and it reinforces itself through pleasure," he said. "It's a lifelong process for many of the people who commit these crimes."
If a young man, say, is sexually attracted to children, the attraction doesn't fade as he ages, Streveler said. Wisconsin just jailed an 82-year-old man convicted with molesting his great-granddaughter, Streveler said.
"A guy doesn't wake up one day at the age of 82 and say, 'I'm kind of attracted to my great-granddaughter,'" Streveler said. "It's a thing that's been going on for a long time. Sometimes, unfortunately, they have acted upon it, but it hasn't been reported."
Aggressive new laws In recent years, high-profile sex crimes have captured the public's attention, especially the rape and murder of children, such as New Jersey's 7-year-old Megan Kanka and California's 12-year-old Polly Klaas.
As a result, more sex offenders are winding up in prison. In Wisconsin, the population of sex criminals has risen by 132 percent over the past 10 years, Streveler said.
New sexual predator statutes, combined with sex offender notification laws, have pushed cops and prosecutors into more aggressive tactics against criminally deviant sex. And the legal changes have eased victims' fear of going public.
"There's a lot more reporting and a lot more prosecution," said Streveler. "And they're getting slammed. They're getting some time."
The nation's toughest sex laws
Wisconsin might well be the worst place to be for a sex offender.
Four years ago, Wisconsin summarily doubled penalties for sexual offenders and instituted a "two strikes and you're out" law that hands life sentences -- at the court's discretion -- to repeat offenders.
And for those who don't get life sentences, or who were jailed before the new laws took effect, new civil prosecutions ensure the worst offenders -- including the elderly -- stay off the streets.
In Wisconsin, 10 percent of sex offenders released from prison wind up doing additional time in a mental hospital on a civil charge. Since the state's 1994 sexual predator law took effect, 160 sex offenders have been released from prison and subsequently sentenced to life in mental hospitals on civil charges.
Ellefson, who will be 100 when his sentence ends in 2006, would be considered for civil prosecution if he lives long enough, said Streveler.
"When you put all these things together," Streveler said, "we're going to be seeing a lot more sex offenders who are going to get old in prison."
Jim Krane is an APBnews.com staff writer (firstname.lastname@example.org).