State Rep. Ross Ford (R-Broken Arrow) on Wednesday held an interim study on possible changes to the Oklahoma Sex Offender Registry. The study took place before the House Public Safety Committee.
“Society is safer when we know where sex offenders are,” Ford said. “One issue is language in statute that allows a sex offender 72 hours from the time they are released from Department of Corrections custody to register an address. Some don’t bother to register; others say they just arrived in town and the 72 hasn’t started yet. We need to make sure they are following the rules.”
Ford said he also wanted to look at language for homeless offenders, which currently says they can give an approximate location for their whereabouts. That is too vague for the courts, he said. Approximate can be five miles or 100 miles, he said. Ford also asked presenters to discuss the current level system that ranks sex offense crimes by severity and to discuss the pros and cons of possibly releveling after a number of years has elapsed from the original sentence.
Another area of concern, Ford said, is protection for senior citizens.
“We currently focus a lot of our efforts on protecting children by not allowing sex offenders to live in proximity to schools or daycares,” he said. “We need to consider protections for those in our nursing homes and other places that serve senior citizens.”
Other presenters were Lt. John Adams with the Tulsa Police Department; Lt. Derrick Hopkins with Norman Police; Cheri Bolz and Margie Weaver with the Department of Corrections (DOC); Paul Wilkening, an attorney with clients on the registry; and Kelsey Landon and Derek Carnaham from Oklahoma Reform Sex Offender Laws (OKRSOL).
Presenters spoke of the challenges of not knowing where sex offenders actually live or can be located and the lack of manpower to track them.
Lt. Adams spoke of the need to lessen restrictions on where sex offenders can live if their victim is 19 years or older. Not letting them live within 2,000 feet of a school, daycare, park or the residence of their victim, for instance, when the victim is not a child, blocks access to housing, support systems and places where offenders can work. This forces many offenders to either evade the system or become homeless, he said, making it harder to know their whereabouts.
Cheri Bolz and Margie Weaver with DOC echoed his comments, saying that because recent changes in law are not retroactive, it forces law enforcement agencies to know each offender’s restrictions. There becomes no way to prosecute or enforce these restrictions, they said.
Wilkening suggested a panel of people from DOC, district attorneys and others need to discuss releveling for offenders who have been labeled for life. He gave an example of a 19-year-old client that had a consensual relationship with a younger teenager and was prosecuted for statutory rape. The victim and her family petitioned the court to ask for the person’s crime to be releveled only to be told there was nothing the court could do.
Carnaham talked about his experience with the registry and how, due to the recent law changes, he has been placed on it for life. He continued to discuss how he’s been forced to move to adhere to the 2,000-foot law when a new park us built and is now living out of a motel with his wife and newborn baby alongside all the other offenders that are forced to live in these few locations.
The 2000-foot restriction on living requirements was supposed to keep the public and their families safe, Ford said, but with the limited housing options available, more offenders are refusing to register with the local law enforcement and living among the public unmonitored.
Ford said his goal is to rewrite statutes to ensure that each sex offender is registered and that law enforcement knows where they are located so they can best keep the public safe.
He quoted an adage, “If you fill a room full of alligators, would your rather have the lights on or off?”
New sex offender reporting law in effect
As of November 1, sex offenders residing with a minor child must now report to the statewide centralized Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) hotline. Previously, only the parent, stepparent or grandparent of a minor had to report to the hotline. Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, authored the bill at the request of DHS to better protect all of Oklahoma’s children.
“This was an oversight in our law that needed to be addressed to ensure law enforcement and DHS are aware of who sex offenders are living with when it comes to minors,” Pugh said. “Given changing relationships, financial or health circumstances, a sex offender may live in multiple locations but it’s important that the authorities always know if there are minors in the home. Having this information will help these agencies better protect those youth should the need arise and hold sex offenders more accountable.”
Offenders are required to report to the hotline within three days of moving. Failing to report to DHS is a felony offense punishable by one to three years in the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) custody.
According to DOC, there are currently 7,050 registered sex offenders in the state.