Sunday, October 28, 2007

New sex-offender law faces opposition [OK & Adam Walsh Act]

So in a classic case of not looking (or thinking) before you leap, Oklahoma lawmakers complied with the federal Adam Walsh act in order to save $200k - $300k of federal funds dangled before them. Looks like they bought a pig in a poke.

A three-tiered ranking system takes effect Thursday.

New restrictions for sex offenders -- including a three-level ranking system that designates how long they must register -- take effect Thursday.

However, some of those who are on the front lines dealing with sex offenders believe that Oklahoma's law is having an adverse effect and needs further changes.

''Most people who know anything about this are frustrated. It is just not helpful -- the laws as they are now,'' said Randy Lopp, treatment subcommittee chairman of the Oklahoma Sex Offender Management Team.

Lopp is also a member of the review board established by the new law to categorize the sex offenders into three levels.

''I think if the general public understood the research, they would be willing to back the legislators to change the laws to make more sense and to protect children, because the laws as they are written are not protecting children," he said. "They are doing more harm than good.''

Categorizing offenders: Lawmakers changed the state law to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Act, said Jim Rabon, who oversees sex offender registration
for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

What the federal law calls a ''tier system,'' the new state law calls a ''numeric risk level.'' The risk level is determined by the type and severity of crime for which the offender was convicted and the number of convictions that person has, he said.

Level One offenders will register for 15 years; Level Two offenders will register for 25 years; and Level Three offenders will register for life.

As in the previous version of the law, those who are categorized as ''aggravated'' or ''habitual'' sex offenders will also be required to register for life.

Rabon said the committee that set up the levels reviewed cases of people beginning prison and probation between July 2006 and June 2007 and determined that most sex offenders fall into the highest risk category.

The review revealed that 78 percent of the sex offenders fall in Level Three, 3 percent in Level Two and 19 percent in Level One.

Based on those numbers, Tulsa Police Sgt. Gary Stansill, who has spent more than 20 years investigating sex crimes in Tulsa, said he believes that the Oklahoma law is too broad.

Under the law, he said, an 18-year-old who is convicted of statutory rape for having sex with a 15-year-old and someone who is convicted of groping an officer during an undercover sting would both be registered sex offenders for life.

''The least number of people should be in the worst tier, but the most number of people are going to be in the worst tier under the new law,'' Stansill said.

Federal law mandates that any state that does not adapt to the Adam Walsh Act will receive up to a 10 percent reduction in federal grant money. Based on past funding, that might amount to a loss of about $200,000 to $300,000 for Oklahoma, Rabon said.

The loss in funding is part of the reason the state has moved to comply with the federal law, he said. Another reason is consistency.

''We do recognize that if all of the states' registration systems are similar, that does make it easier to track offenders when they move from state to state,'' Rabon said.

He said it is important that people realize that Oklahoma has what he believes is one of the best sex offender registration systems in the country.

By that, he means a lot of information is available on the Department of Corrections Web site that is easy for the public to access and local law enforcement agencies to update. He said Oklahoma has a low percentage of delinquent offenders compared to other states.

The residency debate: Lopp said he doesn't believe that the offense-based assessment is the the best way to categorize offenders. He thinks a tiered system is a step in the right direction but that it should be based on the risk of the individual.

Some states have refused federal funds so they can continue to develop risk-based assessments, he said.

A risk-based assessment could then correspond with the residency restrictions, which have created headaches for law enforcement agencies across the country.

Stansill said residency restrictions have driven sex offenders underground in Tulsa.

The controversial state law that went into effect last year has put 90 percent of the city off limits for sex offenders by prohibiting them from living within 2,000 feet of playgrounds, parks or child-care facilities. They were already prohibited from living within that distance of a school.

The new law does loosen the residency restrictions slightly by specifying that offenders are precluded from living near only child-care centers -- and not including day-care homes, which are numerous.

Before the residency laws, Tulsa had about 540 registered sex offenders at the peak. As of Sept. 20, 329 were registered here, Stansill said.

''If I really thought it would really do some good, then I would be all for it (the residency restrictions). Then we could focus on the people who don't want to register -- who have no good excuse for not registering -- because they are the people who are likely to be re-offending.''

The new law that takes effect Thursday requires police to register sex offenders even if the offenders intend to move into restricted areas. Previously, Tulsa police would tell an offender to look for another place to live and then come back to register.

''If I register those people, does that give them the right to live there?" Stansill questioned. "Or are we supposed to register them and turn about and work a case against them for violating the residency law?''

Stansill said sex crimes detectives are already overloaded with sex offender law violation cases.

From 2006 to 2007 Tulsa police have investigated 228 sex offender registration violation cases. During the same time period, they investigated 275 rape cases.

Forcing offenders to move from place to place because of residency laws could do more harm than good, Lopp said.

''When you keep making these people move, you are disrupting their stability; you are disrupting their jobs; you are causing an immense amount of stress on that population,'' Lopp said.

''What do we know about re-offense? Stress, job instability, living instability increase the chance of re-offense.''

Authorities say research shows that where sex offenders live is not a factor -- that most of them know their victims and that attacks often occur in the victims' own homes. But Rabon said there is more than one side to the argument about residency restrictions.

''The other side of that is that between the DOC and all of the local law enforcement agencies, . . . everybody works hard trying to locate them and keep the addresses current,'' he said.

That results in Oklahoma having a high rate of compliance, Rabon said. Of 5,462 registered sex offenders statewide, 870 are classified as delinquent, meaning their locations are unknown.

''When the residency restriction went into effect, we saw the delinquent number bump up a little bit, not a huge number,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Lopp hopes the committee works to encourage state and federal legislators to change the laws to make them more effective.

''What ultimately is going to have to happen to change this law is the community is going to have to get in touch with legislators and tell them, "This is not helping; this is making things worse,' " Lopp said.

Correctamundo! But we'll see if the Oklahoma legislators more courageous than the Iowa legislators who know they did wrong, but dare not attempt to fix it (as noted on this blog). I'm betting they won't be.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Halloween assertion

Prove me wrong:

On Halloween, more trick-or-treater children have encountered razor blades in apples/candy (I read of one such, do not know if it is true) than have been snatched/assaulted by registered sex offenders.

(I expect the latter number to be zero, unless some parents have been totally indifferent or near-criminally negligent.)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Shadowed by the past


... One one side: the federal Adam Walsh Act. Passed this year, it mandates greater constraints on sex offenders, requires states to place juvenile offenders on public registries, establishes a tiered registry system based on the crime and requires states to maintain registries online, with detailed information down to the license plate numbers of any car the offender uses. States could lose federal funding if they don't comply.

On the other side: a call to completely overhaul, if not eliminate, sex offender registries as they are now. In September, an international human rights organization issued a 146-page report that concluded registries "may not protect children from sex crimes but do lead to harassment, ostracism and even violence against former offenders." It cited Maine's two sex offender murders as an example. ...

I haven't heard about this "international human rights organization" report, but am interested. Any reader know of this?

Another perspective on sex offenders

Read it all:

By Tim Walden

Sunday, October 21, 2007

I'm becoming disgruntled with the inaccurate and unfair media attention former sex offenders are receiving. I understand the stigma and political sensitivity, as I understand a parent's desire to protect a child, but at what point does the unjustified witch hunt end and the truthful recognition of fact begin?

During the campaign for Jessica's Law, I began doing research. On the Department of Justice Web site, I found a report entitled "Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994," November 2003.

This is what I learned.

Fact: "Compared to nonsex offenders released from state prison, sex offenders had a lower overall re-arrest rate."

Fact: "Released sex offenders with one prior arrest (the arrest for the sex crime for which they were imprisoned) had the lowest re-arrest rate for a sex crime, about 3 percent."

Fact: "Following their release in 1994, 209 of the total 9,691 released sex offenders (2.2 percent) were re-arrested for a sex offense against a child."

Fact: "Of the 9,691 released sex offenders, 3.5 percent (339 of the 9,691) were reconvicted for a sex crime within the three-year follow-up period."

Fact: "Released child molesters with more than one prior arrest were more likely than those with only one arrest in their criminal record to be re-arrested for a new sex crime (5.7 percent compared to 3.2 percent). The same was true of statutory rapists (5.3 percent compared to 3.5 percent)." A statutory rapist is an individual who had illegal consensual sex with a minor.

These statistics are documented evidence that former offenders pose very little threat to our community, although it's politically taboo for politicians or the Department of Corrections to admit it.

Research has shown that where an offender lives is unrelated to where he/she commits a crime. A predator can find a potential victim regardless of where they live.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bet it won't work

From this news item:

Officials say they will have access to more information about sex offenders in Tennessee. Offenders will have to wear tracking bracelets around their ankles.

The system will alert officials if the offender goes near a school or routinely visits areas where he or she does not live. Officials will be alerted if the offender removes the tracking device. ...

Easily circumvented. There are places where, even if these are real-time tracking devices (unlike the less expensive and more common trackers that upload every 24 hours), they are disconnected from the network. Think of areas where you have no cellphone signal, for example. All the sex offender has to do is locate such an zones where the tracker is disconnected (very easy to find, if you know what you're looking for), enter it, cut off the tracking device, wrap it securely in foil, dispose of it and disappear.

Given the prevalence of such zones, it's highly unlikely the police will be called out every time a unit drops off the network. (Think of the police being called on you every time your cellphone signal drops.)

Just more wasted taxpayers dollars in the pursuit of false security. The only winners here are the demagogue politicians who pushed this.

Sex Offender Laws May Do More Harm Than Good

From blogger Sarah Tofte, who gets it:

Sex offender laws may be doing more harm than good. That is the conclusion Human Rights Watch came to after two years of intensive research into sex offender registration, community notification, and residency restriction laws in the United States. Our research convinced us that politicians failed to do their homework by enacting popular laws without seeking expert

Instead of an informed debate about how sexual violence ravages this country, politicians and the media have largely focused on child victims of truly horrific crimes by previously convicted sex offenders -- like the murders of Megan Kanka, Polly Klaas, and Jessica Lunsford. Horrific yes, but uncommon, which means the laws are designed to tackle only a tiny minority and fail to address the full picture of sexual violence.

A growing number of child safety and rape prevention advocates agree that current laws are not working. For example, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), a state-wide coalition of 84 rape crisis centers and sexual assault prevention programs, had this to say about residency restriction laws: They "waste valuable resources on sex offenders who are unlikely to reoffend, while leaving a deficit of treatment, supervision, and focus on offenders who we know should be receiving more intense scrutiny."

Two popular myths about child abusers underlie many of our sex offender laws: first, that our children have most to fear from strangers, and second, that sex offenders will inevitably repeat their crimes. But the data tell a different story. More than 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and trusts. And recidivism rates for sex offenders are far lower than most people believe -- authoritative studies show that three out of four do not re-offend within 15 years of release from prison.

Furthermore, focusing much of our public policy resources on restricting the rights of former sex offenders will do very little, if anything, to protect the 87 percent of victims of sexual violence who were abused by someone who had no previous sex crime conviction.

Residency restriction laws, in place in 20 states, are based on another popular belief about former offenders -- that keeping them away from places where children gather will reduce their risk of re-offending. But there is no evidence these laws diminish crimes against children and some to suggest the opposite.

A recent study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections analyzed 224 sex offender recidivists to see if where they lived had an effect on their crimes. The study found that residential proximity had very little impact on a recidivist's opportunity to re-offend. Many took pains to drive far from their neighborhoods in order to re-offend. More than half (113) came into contact with their victims through "social or relationship proximity" to the child. The most common example was that of a male offender who found his victim(s) while socializing with their mother.

The main impact of residency restrictions may be to drive former offenders underground, away from families, police supervision and the help that can stop them re-offending. As an Iowa sheriff pointed out, "We've taken stable people who have committed a sex crime and cast them out of their homes, away from their jobs, away from treatment, and away from public transportation. It's just absolutely absurd what these laws have done, and the communities are at greater risk because of it."

Law enforcement officials and sex offender treatment providers repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that isolating former offenders is counter-productive. Existing parole and probation laws already permit law enforcement agencies to place restrictions and conditions on former offenders when appropriate.

All registered sex offenders must provide a home address, but because of the restrictions, some do not have a home. Police in Iowa, which has seen residency restrictions backfire, have resolved this conundrum by allowing individuals to register as homeless, if they specify a location. So users who go to Iowa's online registry will find addresses listed as "on the Raccoon River between Des Moines and West Des Moines," "behind the Target on Euclid," and "underneath the I-80 bridge." I visited some of these "addresses." The areas are industrial, polluted, noisy, full of debris, and, in one case, right next to an active railroad track.

As a Des Moines police officer explained, "We don't expect that the registrants are actually living under the bridge, it's just one of the few places where they are legally allowed to admit they are living, and so they list that as their address, and go live someplace else."

Since the law took effect in Iowa, police have lost track of hundreds of former offenders.

Even online registries, where the personal details of offenders, but not necessarily the nature of their crime, are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, may not be that useful. Some were convicted of non-violent offenses, others were children when they committed their crime. Police already have the duty to inform neighbors when an offender who might pose a threat moves in.

But it's one thing to say parents should be told there's a dangerous man living next door -- which they should -- and quite another to let anyone browse the registries to see who's listed, regardless of any need to know. Unfettered access to registry information can and does lead to harassment, ostracism and even violence against former offenders. That doesn't protect anyone. More effective would be to ensure that police actually pass on potential threats to the relevant community.

We deserve laws that protect everyone from sexual violence. Former offenders need laws that allow them to rebuild their lives -- because when they succeed in safely rejoining their communities, we are all made safer. State and federal legislators should end residency restrictions and reform online registry and community notification laws so they target high-risk offenders.

It's not surprising that those who know something about the nature of sexual violence in the United States have started to criticize the way the laws treat former sex offenders. But it's a shame that politicians don't seem to be listening to the experts who could help to craft laws that might actually prevent sexual violence.

Some good comments, too.

Logical extension

We deserve to know if any offender lives nearby

After reading the excellent series by Matthew Tully, "Life on the edge," I started thinking: We require sex offenders to list where they live and work, ostensibly because this protects society. So why do we not require it for all criminals?

Don't we deserve to know if there is a drug dealer living down the street? What about people convicted of violent crimes using guns and knifes or even their fists?
Drunken drivers usually re-offend. Want to know if there is one driving down your street before you let your kid play there? Gang members often return to gangs after prison, so why not list where they live and work? What about burglars, robbers, arsonists and murderers?
The recidivism rate for sex offenders is lower than for many of these other criminals, especially for those who obey the law and register. So if we require these people to tell us where they live, if we limit where they may live or work, then it only makes sense to extend this logic to everyone ever convicted. Or are the politicians only interested in sex crimes?

Nick Ames