Sex Offender Laws Prove Problematic

Sunday, June 24th 2007, 2:18 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ When Sapulpa Police told Nancy Phipps who her neighbors would be at a motel on the northern edge of Sapulpa, she burst into tears. Phipps, who has a 16-year-old daughter, had moved into a motel with dozens of sex offenders, including child molesters, rapists and other sexual predators.

``When he pulled up that list, I just started crying,'' said Phipps, 42. ``I told him, 'How are we going to be able to do this?'''

Because of a 2002 deferred sentence she received for flashing and soliciting an undercover officer while she says she was under the influence of prescription medication, Phipps is registered sex offender.

As lawmakers in Oklahoma and across the country increase the penalties and restrictions for convicted sex offenders, some low-level offenders like Phipps are getting caught in the net.

Oklahoma law prohibits any convicted sex offender from living within a 2,000-foot radius of any school, educational institution, playground, park or licensed child care facility. As a result, virtually 90% of large metropolitan areas like Oklahoma City and Tulsa are off limits to offenders.

For Phipps and her daughter, it meant moving to one of a handful of seedy motels at the edge of Tulsa County outside the legal boundary where dozens of sex offenders have gone to live.

``It was horrible,'' Phipps said. ``They were starting to knock on the door and call us on the phone. We were so afraid, I just said forget it. If they're going to come and arrest me, so be it.''

Phipps has since moved to a homeless shelter in Tulsa while she searches for a safer place to move with her daughter.

``I'm just hoping I can find another place to live before they arrest me.''

Because of a federal mandate, Oklahoma lawmakers did develop a tiered system for identifying sex offenders by placing them in one of three categories based on their risk level to society. However, they chose not to apply the tiered system to residency restrictions and actually made some of the registration requirements, even for lower-level offenders, more restrictive.

In many cases, lawmakers implement harsh laws targeting sex offenders in reaction to a traumatic event like a child abduction and rape. The laws often result in unintended consequences, but lawmakers lack the political will to ease restrictions on sex offenders because of how voters may perceive them, said Jeffery Walker, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Sex offender registries and systems for notifying the public were good ideas, but residency restrictions and so-called ``zones of safety'' that prohibit sex offenders from going to certain places where children congregate have not proved to be effective, said Walker, who co-wrote a 2003 national review of sex offender and registration laws.

``Never underestimate our ability to screw up something good,'' Walker said. ``We always have a tendency to take something too far, and what we wind up doing is overburdening the police. We keep piling up laws to where they can't deal with them all.''

Another problem is that many sex offenders simply go underground and stop registering or stop complying with the law so that they can find a place to live.

``We have seen, particularly since the residency restrictions went into place, an increase in the people not complying with the address restrictions,'' said Jim Rabon, the head of sentencing administration for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Phipps acknowledges she's been tempted not to register, but says she wants to comply and find a safe place for her and her daughter to live.

``There are a lot of (offenders) here in Tulsa who are underground, because there is just no place to go. There is nowhere to live. You're just stuck,'' she said. ``It's getting down to the wire for us and there's really nothing I can do about it.''