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.


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