Sex Offender Residency Restrictions Getting Another Look

Sunday, April 22nd 2007, 2:00 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Concerns about a decline in registration and a system that treats all sex offenders the same have some Oklahoma lawmakers revisiting legislation that placed additional residency restrictions on those offenders.

Police and corrections officials said a law passed last year that bars sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a playground, park or day-care center has kept offenders from registering because it leaves them with few places to live legally. They already were forbidden to live near schools.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported that 860 sex offenders had fallen off the registry as of April, an increase from 800 in 2006.

``Residency restrictions don't make sense,'' Corrections Department parole officer Mark Pursley said. ``There is no study out there that says proximity increases recidivism. The true predators _ if they want a child, they will go get a child.''

The definition of a sex offender also has caused problems. They range from child rapists to drunken college students caught urinating in public, but all sex offenders are treated the same under state law. None can live near schools, playgrounds, parks or day-care centers, and all must register on a public sex offender list for the rest of their lives.

Lawmakers are working to put in place a tiered system that would evaluate each case individually to determine the level of risk a sex offender poses to the community. The change would allow law enforcement to focus their efforts and resources on those who are the biggest threat, supporters say.

``The key component is supervision,'' said Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell. ``When you hear the word `sex offender,' you immediately think of a child rapist. There are so many other people caught within that; this makes the system more fair.''

House Bill 1760 would set up a risk assessment review committee at the Corrections Department. The committee would look at each case before a sex offender's release from prison and give each person a risk level ranking.

That ranking would be tied to how long offenders must register and eventually could determine where they can live. The tiered system will be mandatory in all states by 2009 as part of the federal Adam Walsh legislation, which requires all convicted sex offenders be placed in a risk category, including those in the system now.

The bill does not tie the rankings to the living restrictions, but Blackwell said he plans to add that language. A level-one offender may not need any living restrictions, Blackwell said.

The rank also determines how long a sex offender must register with the state. Level-three sex offenders would remain registered for life, but level-one offenders would be removed after 15 years, and level-two offenders after 25 years, if the bill becomes law.

Eighteen-year-olds who have sex with younger teen schoolmates should not have to register as a sex offender for the rest of their lives if that is their only conviction, Blackwell said.

Another change Blackwell said is needed is a clear definition of which day-care centers fall under the living restrictions. Some have interpreted the law to include home day cares, limiting even further where a sex offender can live. Blackwell says he intends to change the law to apply only to commercial day-care centers.

State Rep. Lucky Lamons, a former Tulsa police officer, said the living restrictions in place now are too tight, especially for nonviolent offenders.

``This issue is a political football ... because there is nobody that wants a sex offender living in their neighborhood,'' said Lamons, D-Tulsa. ``But the rules are so restrictive, that now the system is failing because they aren't registering and living wherever they want to live and hoping they don't get caught.''