A new law that further tightens restrictions on where sex offenders can live has some law enforcement agencies concerned it will discourage people from registering as offenders.
The law, which went into effect on Nov. 1, added home daycares to the list of locations sex offenders cannot live near. Prior to that, state law already prohibited offenders from living near child-friendly areas, ordering them to live 2,000 feet from public and private schools, churches, playgrounds, parks or daycare centers. The law did not apply to home daycares, of which Oklahoma has more than 1,500.
Some law enforcement and critics say the restrictive laws are counterproductive.
Tulsa Police Department Sgt. John Adams is head of the child exploitation and sex offender unit. He said although the law was intended to make communities safer, it has essentially done the opposite.
“They (sex offenders) just won’t register,” Adams said. “And that’s what happened. Our number of registered sex offenders has went down and our number of arrests has just skyrocketed. And we don’t have the manpower to go out and look for the guys like we should.”
There are more than 300 childcare facilities in Tulsa licensed by the Department of Human Services, according to DHS data. Almost 200 of those are home daycares.
Adams said with home daycares added, only about 5 percent of Tulsa is outside of a “safe zone.” There are almost 500 sex offenders registered with TPD.
“There’s more sex offenders we don’t know where (they) are living than we do know where they’re living,” Adams said.
The goal of the sex offender registry, Adams said, is to notify the public of where sex offenders live so people can take precautions to protect themselves and their families. Law enforcement uses the registry to check on offenders to ensure they are in compliance and where they’re supposed to be.
Oklahoma aims to classify its sex offenders by the severity of their crimes, ranging from level one to level three. Level one perpetrators must register as a sex offender with local law enforcement annually for 15 years; level two offenders must register every six months for 25 years; and level three offenders must register every 90 days for life.
The state’s original sex offender registration law went into effect in 1989, and several restrictions have been added since.
Damion Shade is a criminal justice policy analyst at the nonpartisan think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute. He said although data on the affects and impacts on restrictive housing laws are lacking, he has seen anecdotal evidence that they are not productive.
Some studies suggest registries have little if any effect on offender recidivism, stating they fail to address why people offend in the first place.
Shade said it has been decades since Oklahoma lawmakers have revisited sex offender laws in a comprehensive way to see what makes sense and works best. He said the laws that went into effect on Nov. 1 “literally just add more restrictions to where these people (offenders) can live.”
“It’s hard to see how, you know, they represent a meaningful policy change,” he said. “So much of our structure has built on the idea we can make boundaries and walls to make it impossible to interact with these people. … Data does not suggest simply keeping them locked up outside of prison is necessarily the best remedy.”
He was supportive of House Bill 1124, which barred sex offenders from living or loitering near their victims’ homes. But the fact the bill went into effect just this year speaks to how Oklahoma approaches sex offenders and public safety, he said.
The bill was authored after a Bristow woman’s attacker moved next door to her last year.
Shade said if sex offenders aren’t being incarcerated forever, there is the possibility of rehabilitation. And if there is, it’s important to study best practices.
“Most of our policy hasn’t been built on really detailed, thought out, what will make these sex offenses less likely, which seems to me should be our main objective,” he said.
‘They won’t change it’
Thoseaccused of sex offenses have long been viewed as some of the most dangerous criminals — secretive and vile. For politicians, that means there are few willing to consider pulling restrictive laws back and little risk to imposing more regulations.
Adams said he has approached numerous lawmakers to suggest dialing back the living restrictions, but no one will touch the topic.
“They won’t change it,” he said. “It’s a death sentence to get re-elected, and they have told me this straight up: ‘We agree, but I’m not going to put my name on a bill because I want to get re-elected, and if I do, my opponent is going to say I’m soft on sex offenders.’”
Adams said lawmakers don’t understand the laws have made sex offender registration “an entire mess.” Fewer sex offenders might be registering in Tulsa, but that doesn’t mean they don’t live there, he said.
“If I put you in a room with 30 rattlesnakes, do you want me to leave the light on so you’ll know where they’re at or turn it off, where you don’t know where they’re at,” Adams said. “And all these restrictive laws have actually done that.
“So we’re turning the lights off, so you don’t know where they’re at. They’re still here. They’re just not registering, so the public is less safe.”