There's hypocrisy in the U.S. criminal justice system. If an adult has sex with a child, the child is a victim. But if that same child accepts money for sex, the child is, in many states, a criminal.
James Dold, '06 BA Criminal Justice and Psychology, can't let that injustice go unchallenged.
"It's a conflict in the law where a child who can't legally consent to have sex can still be prosecuted for prostitution," Dold said. "We place restrictions on children and have criminal laws to protect them from bad influences and those who would prey on them." But then we turn them into criminals, he said. And sometimes we make sure those mistakes follow them for life.
Dold is the advocacy director for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He's been in Washington, D.C., since getting his law degree from the University of Maryland, but his work has taken him across the country -- and back to Nevada. In 2013, he successfully lobbied for a state law that increased the penalties for pimps who traffic children. The law passed.
His focus is on extreme penalties for youths convicted of crimes, particularly life sentences without the chance of parole -- a cause that has reunited him with his alma mater. He's working with the Juvenile Justice Clinic in UNLV's Boyd School of Law to organize the push in Nevada. That lobbying coalition also includes the ACLU, the public defender's office, formerly incarcerated youths, lawyers, and other community members.
Mary Berkheiser, director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic, said Dold has brought a national perspective to their efforts. "James also has the added benefit of being a Nevadan who understands the dynamics on the ground here," she said. "The time and energy he has devoted here will be crucial to enacting legislation. Right now, those sentenced to life without parole will die in prison for crimes committed when they were just kids. New legislation will give them an opportunity to appear before the parole board and demonstrate their maturation and readiness for life outside the prison walls."
If Dold's history as a judicial reform advocate is an indication, he has a great shot at changing Nevada law. In his prior position with Polaris Project, he was one of several advocates who in 2010 argued against the life-without-parole sentence of Sara Kruzan, a victim of child sex trafficking who was convicted of killing her pimp in 1994 in California. She was just 16 when she killed the man who had trafficked her since she was 13 years old.
Activists urged then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to commute Kruzan's sentence because she was a victim of years of psychological manipulation and physical and sexual abuse. She was paroled after the work of advocates and her lawyers resulted in an executive commutation. They also succeeded in getting a new law that gave the parole board the ability to consider the mitigating factors of youth in determining whether to grant parole to child offenders.
"That was a really eye-opening experience for me," he said. "I knew human trafficking would be one of the most important issues in my life that I'd work on."
Dold went on to help pass 40 new laws to combat human trafficking and worked in more than half the states in the country. Eleven states have abolished life-without-parole sentences for minors. Dold also played a pivotal role in the passage of several of those laws and in working with the American Bar Association to pass a resolution on the issue.
He received the inaugural Louis Henkin Memorial Award from Rightslink at Columbia Law School and the Josephine Butler Abolitionist Award for his work fighting to protect vulnerable men, women, and children from human traffickers.
Troubled Past, Uneasy Path
Dold credits former history instructor James Murphy, '03 JD, for helping steer his career toward law. Murphy, who taught the class while attending UNLV's William S. Boyd School of Law, is now a senior lawyer at the Laxalt & Nomura firm in Las Vegas. "He took me under his wing a bit because of my writing ability and the assignments I did for him," Dold said. "I think he probably stuck out in my mind in terms of a professor who encouraged my development down the legal path."
And that path wasn't easy. He grew up in inner-city Las Vegas and worked to put himself through college, leaving little time to rack up the extracurricular activities and internships many law schools seek in applicants. He was rejected from all 15 law schools he applied to after his senior year.
He worked as an assistant beverage manager at Caesars Palace while he gained internship experience on the side with the Nevada attorney general's office and the county's public defender.
"I got to see both sides of a prosecution and defense," he said. "This was important because I hadn't had the type of exposure I probably needed to make decisions as a lawyer."
He fared better in his next round of applications, but only slightly. Seattle University's law school offered him a partial scholarship, but Dold knew his heart wanted to be closer to the country's decision makers. Dold was near the top of his class in Seattle when the University of Maryland accepted his transfer application, he said.
Using his legal skills to protect endangered children is personal: He was just 13 when the mother of another child from his Boy Scout troop molested and abused him, he said. The woman undermined Dold's relationship with his parents and extended family and then convinced him to live with -- and work -- for her, he said. The woman treated him like an endentured servant for about two years until Dold realized how she was manipulating him.
Dold told his story to the Nevada Legislature in 2013 to support a law that would strengthen penalties for people who force labor or services from minors. Testifying was cathartic, he said, because he'd never get justice for himself. By the time he gained the maturity to understand the crime, the statute of limitations had expired.
"Looking back, I felt like we were all helpless in some ways and at the mercy of a system that either did not know we existed or did know, but did not care," he said. "I felt helpless because of the odds we all faced in having to overcome growing up in a low-socio-economic environment, a broken school system, and a never-ending struggle against drugs and crime.