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More walls await freed predators

1-7-2007 Oregon:
It's hard to pity a man who once molested three mentally disabled adults in his care, just because years after leaving prison he's still searching for a permanent place to call home.

The man, who was released in 2004, has applied to dozens of apartments and been rejected. The only places that will rent to him are run-down apartments in areas of town where prostitutes make a living and drug addicts get their fix. A former alcoholic and drug user himself, he knows he shouldn't live there.

The 54-year-old man's problem poses a troubling question: What does society do with a class of people whose crimes are so repugnant, few are willing to give them a chance?

A public outraged by cases of sexual predators repeating their crimes has insisted on a blizzard of laws restricting where they can live and what they can do when they leave prison. Yet some of those laws have had an unintended consequence.

Officials charged with supervising the rehabilitation of thousands of sex offenders statewide say they are finding it increasingly difficult to get jobs, inpatient drug treatment and, most of all, housing. Parole and probation officers say if a sex offender can't find a place to live, it's tough to make sure he's getting treatment and staying away from temptation.

"We're not taking their side, saying 'Oh, poor them,' " said Scott Taylor, community corrections chief for the Oregon Department of Corrections. "We don't want them to abandon all hope of being able to succeed."

A debate is growing over which measures help -- and which hinder -- the rehabilitation of sex offenders.

In Oregon, laws in recent years have either allowed or required public agencies to post the home addresses, photos, birth dates and license plates of every predatory sex offender. There are 205 predatory sex offenders on Multnomah County's Web site. About 755 of the 13,425 registered sex offenders in Oregon are on the Oregon State Police predatory sex offender Web site.

State laws prohibit sex offenders from sharing homes, from living within three miles of their victims or near schools, although the law doesn't define "near." The Portland City Council may vote soon on banning convicted child predators from public swimming pools and playgrounds.

Recent high-profile crimes such as the 2005 rape and slaying of a 9-year-old Florida girl -- allegedly by a convicted sex offender living nearby -- have prompted tougher legislation nationwide.

California and Georgia created zones around schools, bus stops and parks where sex offenders aren't allowed to reside. Ohio and Missouri lawmakers approved lifetime tracking of some sex offenders with GPS devices. And some towns in the Northeast essentially banned sex offenders from living there at all. Many of these measures are being challenged in the courts.

Offenders tell of troubles

A dozen sex offenders interviewed by The Oregonian described the challenges they faced finding a place to live. Because they fear harassment or injury, The Oregonian agreed not to use their names. Their accounts were corroborated by their parole and probation officers.
One 68-year-old man spent a few thousand dollars fixing up a rental house and installing new carpet before neighbors told authorities the house was close to a school for pregnant teens and he was forced to move. When he finally found a new place, a neighbor posted signs in front of the house announcing his presence even though Multnomah County officials already notified his neighbors.

Another man in his 20s, who is mentally disabled, lived in a motor home parked off Southeast Powell Boulevard for weeks. No motor home park in the area would have him because of his sex offender status; he had been caught printing child pornography at a public library.

A 37-year-old man, convicted of sodomizing and sexually abusing two young boys when he was a teenager, says managers of ramshackle apartments are the only ones who'll rent to him -- even two decades after his crimes.

Public disgust, he says, has increased each year.
Since Multnomah County's Web site started posting his name, photo, license plate and address last year, he's received a death threat and had his tires slashed.

"I called the police, and the cop who came out said, 'What do you want me to do?' " said the offender. "And he was right, there was nothing he could do."

In July, residents of Sheridan in Yamhill County drove out a halfway house for five sex offenders looking for permanent homes and jobs. The house closed in less than a month after community protests.

"When I hear something like that, I say, 'OK, then where do they go?' " said Bobby James, a Multnomah County corrections counselor.

Staying employed difficult

Studies show that sex offenders who hold down a job and maintain a stable home have the greatest chance of complying with the terms of their court-ordered supervision.

In a Florida survey of 183 sex offenders, 27 percent said they lost a job after the community was notified about their criminal past. About 20 percent said they had to move when their landlords found out about their sex crimes, and 15 percent said they were forced to pack up when neighbors found out. One out of three reported being harassed or threatened by neighbors.

Taylor, the head of Oregon community corrections, said that sex offenders have a markedly lower re-offense rate than the general criminal population. State figures show that three years after sex offenders are released from prison, about 5 percent to 6 percent are re-convicted of felony sex crimes, although 11 percent to 12 percent are convicted of other criminal felonies.

That's compared with about 30 percent of car thieves, drug dealers and other criminals who are re-convicted after three years.

The exception, Taylor notes, is high-risk sex offenders, such as pedophiles who victimized boys and offenders who raped women. Although it may take some years, some studies show, upward of 40 percent to 50 percent reoffend, and officials monitor and treat this group more intensely.

Of the 205 predatory sex offenders under supervision in Multnomah County, 14 are listed as homeless. Approximately 28 sex offenders are listed as homeless countywide. Transient sex offenders must register their addresses, as required by law, but the addresses often are no more specific than "the corner of Fifth and Main" or "underneath the west side of the Burnside Bridge."

"It's much safer to have parole officers know where these people are -- rather than have them randomly roaming out there in the community," said Ed Blackburn, a director at Central City Concern. The nonprofit started renting about 30 of its 1,500 available housing units to sex offenders roughly a decade ago.

Officials worry that homeless offenders are more likely to ignore treatment, polygraph tests and regular check-ins with authorities. Parole officer Ian Clanton said one of the offenders he monitors stopped showing up for his weekly appointments as he accumulated more bedding and possessions.

"They don't want to leave their stuff," Clanton said. "They don't want to lose it." Officials say some sex offenders are homeless by choice. For others, they just couldn't get a break.

"Part of the problem is the public doesn't make a distinction between people who are trying and people who are not -- it's just so easy to say no," said Sarah Frost, a Multnomah County parole officer who supervises the 54-year-old offender who molested the three mentally disabled adults in his care.

Frost says that despite his past, he's one of the ones trying to rebuild their lives. ..more.. by AIMEE GREEN

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