OKLAHOMA CITY — A system for categorizing sex offenders that experts describe as flawed is causing local police departments and state prison workers in Oklahoma to spend time and money monitoring thousands of sex offenders who pose little risk to the public.
When the federal government imposed requirements on states in 2006 to create a three-tiered system for ranking sex offenders, Oklahoma lawmakers decided to base the tiers strictly on the crime an individual committed.
Because of that, more than 16 sexual crimes in Oklahoma result in offenders being required to register as sex offenders for life or for 25 years — an onerous restriction that imposes numerous requirements and prevents them from living in most urban settings.
“As far as I can tell, there’s no real assessment to a risk,” said Ron Collett, a Norman police detective who oversees about 80 sex offenders in the city. “You’re just given this rating based on the conviction alone.
“I suspect, based on my experience, that there’s some people that could be assessed in other ways to have a more reliable and effective way to tell if they’re a threat to the community or someone that could go on and lead a productive life,” the 20-year law enforcement veteran said.
Rep. Skye McNiel said her interest in the topic was piqued in part by an incident last session when a convicted female sex offender addressed a House committee. The offender, a former teacher from a small southwest Oklahoma town convicted of second-degree rape involving a 17-year-old boy, was required to register for life and would have been prohibited from attending her children’s activities under a bill lawmakers were considering.
“I just want to know what’s out there and how to best protect people,” said McNiel, R-Bristow. “
Oklahoma currently has more than 7,600 registered sex offenders, including about 1,100 who are considered “delinquent” because they aren’t complying with registration requirements, according to the Department of Corrections, which has four full-time employees overseeing the program.
Oklahoma’s three-tiered system for registering sex offenders is based on 24 qualifying sex crimes. A Level 3 designation requires offenders to register for life and verify their addresses every three months. A Level 2 requires them to register for 25 years, with address verification every six months. A Level 1 requires them to register for 15 years, with address verification once a year.
Richard Kishur, a licensed counselor who has been treating sex offenders for nearly 25 years, said Oklahoma’s current three-tiered system “makes no sense at all.”
“The crime that they’re convicted for tells you nothing about their behavior,” Kishur said. “We’re really wasting very scarce resources on closely supervising people that don’t need it.”
Kishur said 50 years of research into sex offender behavior has resulted in numerous assessment techniques that bring more accurate findings about whether a sex offender is a threat.
“Statistically we can identify who will reoffend and who won’t, within a fairly ... small margin of error,” he said.
But lawmakers knew testing would come with a cost. And when the federal government threatened the loss of federal funds if states didn’t develop a uniform system for classifying sex offenders under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, Oklahoma opted for a “quick and dirty” fix, Kishur said.
“The federal law that began all this mentioned that risk assessment should be done and said the crime for which the person was convicted was one of the things that would be utilized,” he said. “What we did in Oklahoma was sort of take that and twist it and just do the crime. It’s cheap. It’s quick and dirty, and it’s an administrative function that doesn’t do anything.”