Beaufort News

Our View: Beaufort County public right to cry out as sex offender walks

Public reaction was swift when a man convicted of molesting nine boys in a Beaufort County school building walked out of jail a free man two weeks ago.

The outcry was that the criminal justice system let down the families involved and all of society.

We agree.

And the legislature played a key role in the offense as well.

Philip Underwood-Sheppard taught for 17 years in the school district. He was arrested in 2002 after a worker at a Boys & Girls Club after-school program became suspicious and peeked in the music teacher's room at Coosa Elementary School on Lady's Island and saw him naked from the waist down. Two boys, ages 7 and 8, were in the room with him, and there had been inappropriate physical contact.

Seven other boys between the ages of 6 and 13 later came forward to report similar crimes to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.

After pleading guilty to nine counts of indecent exposure, seven counts of performing a lewd act on a child and one count of assault and battery high and aggravated, Underwood-Sheppard was sentenced to 25 years in jail in 2003.

He would serve only about half of it due to earning credit for good behavior and working jobs in prison. That's not enough punishment when you consider the negative impact on nine innocent children.

It's not enough when you consider the $5.2 million it cost the school district and its insurance company, and $2.4 million it cost the nonprofit Boys & Girls Club to settle civil lawsuits.

It's not enough when you consider the fear, anger and distrust he created among parents, both then and now.

The courts, and the state laws that guide them, are supposed to keep that from happening. But the system failed in this case. Underwood- Sheppard is registered as a sex offender, which places some requirements on him going forward, but as it turns out there was very little truth in his 25-year sentence.

At the time of his conviction, such hideous assaults on children were considered a nonviolent crime by state standards. But even with updates to the law, it's too lax. Even if sentenced today, the sex offender could be eligible for parole and time off for good behavior to severely reduce the sentence.

The legislature owes it to the public to do better. Such criminals should have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences and should not be eligible for parole. Judges should have more leeway. A judge should be able to order a minimum amount of time to be served as he or she sees a need for it based on individual cases.

As it stands today, children who innocently trust adult supervision are victimized twice. That's wrong.