Amid the sordid details of a New York financier who preyed upon young women — and didn’t seem to mind procuring others for his rich friends — there is a New Mexico angle. By examining what happened, our state can find ways to better protect adolescents from predators.
Jeremy Epstein, as The New Mexican has reported, owns a 7,500-acre ranch near Stanley on land purchased from the family of former Gov. Bruce King. That’s the connection; Epstein spent time here and brought friends to his hideaway.
A friend to the rich and powerful, Epstein had evaded federal prosecution in a sex case from Florida involving dozens of teenage girls. This happened a decade ago, and the decision to be lenient in the case — made by then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta — has cost Acosta his job as labor secretary for President Donald Trump (also a friend to Epstein, along with former President Bill Clinton). Acosta resigned Friday amid criticism over his failure to prosecute.
Instead of a federal prosecution, Epstein pleaded guilty to two state felony charges in Florida. As part of his deal with federal prosecutors, Epstein was required to register as a sex offender. Except in New Mexico, he did not have to register, another connection.
At the time, New Mexico Department of Public Safety officials determined that under New Mexico law, Epstein would not be categorized as a sex offender because investigators believed his victim in Florida was too old to qualify under New Mexico statutes.
Now, Epstein has been arrested again in New York earlier this month and faces federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges. Because of his connections with presidents, princes and the powerful, it is a case with repercussions beyond the evil of the allegations.
We can’t know whether Epstein having to register as a sex offender in more locations would have changed his behavior in any way. Perhaps in the process of checking on him, police might have caught him and his friends abusing girls. Perhaps he would have stopped coming to New Mexico and remained in a state where he wasn’t on a list of sex offenders. Perhaps he would have continued grooming young girls for abuse and finding others for the powerful men he knew. We can’t know.
What we do know is that if a person is a sex offender in one state, that person should be marked as a sex offender in every other state. Rather than rely on interpretations of various state laws, offenders should be required to register in every state in which they spend considerable time or own property. Then, there should be one easy-to-access federal list — that would help tribal nations spot potential offenders — as well as a list of convicted offenders living in a particular state, county, city and neighborhood.
Federal officials, too, should look more closely at Acosta’s deal with Epstein. It makes little sense that a defendant with potentially dozens of girls ready to testify against him was let off so lightly. Had Epstein been prosecuted successfully in Florida, we might not be wondering about his possible abuses in New Mexico and elsewhere. He would have been behind bars.
Instead, we are left watching the latest prosecution in New York and trying to salvage good out of what has happened. We can start with the sex offender registry law. The 1994 federal statute requires all 50 states to establish sex offender registries as well as adopt a form of community reporting on the locations of those found to have committed serious sex crimes. It needs to be simplified and made more uniform.
Too many details have been left to state officials in deciding how to set up the registries, including which lawbreakers must be on the lists. How people check in; how long the registries last; all of those details vary.
It seems that a country that wants children to be safer would establish standard rules, saving money and strengthening the registries. None of that would eliminate the need for compassion — young couples who have sex unwisely likely are not sex offenders, just foolish. Not everyone belongs on a registry for life, either. Such particulars should be worked out, keeping in mind the need to track serious predators.
Jeffrey Epstein deserved a more vigorous prosecution in Florida. When that didn’t happen, safeguards set up to protect communities and their children failed. There are lessons from the Epstein case — and learning them could save children from harm.