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Danger or not, offenders labeled for life

An offender's life of poverty vs. victim's 'lifetime of trauma'


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRIS ONSTOTT - Portland police officer Bridget Sickon prepares to take sex offender Stanley Washington to jail for failing to re-register after changing his address.When the knock came at Stanley Washington’s door, it came softly, accompanied by: “Hey, Stanley, come out and talk to me.”

It didn’t take Washington long to figure out who had come calling — the Portland police. And once he knew that, he knew why.

Washington is a registered sex offender. Convicted of second-degree rape 20 years ago of an underage girl, he is supposed to re-register every time he moves to a new residence. He’s done that. But when he last registered, in December, he said he was homeless on 82nd Avenue. Police have since learned that he is living in the Kenton neighborhood, nowhere near 82nd Avenue. They called and told him to come in and register. He didn’t. Last Thursday morning they came calling.

The police also know that Washington has been refereeing at youth basketball leagues around the city. Technically, Washington can legally referee boys and girls basketball, and Bridget Sickon, who supervises the police sex registration detail, recognizes that. But failing to register, even just a change of address, is a felony.

Handcuffed in the back seat of Sickon’s police car, Washington says he is still homeless, and caretaking the house in North Portland for a friend.

by: PORTLAND POLICE BUREAU - Sex offenders in area neighborhoods.Washington will likely be kept at the county jail for only a day or so. A court appearance will follow. If a judge or jury agrees that he legally failed to register, Washington likely will get a sentence of probation. Under the supervision of a probation officer, Sickon says, Washington probably won’t be allowed to referee youth basketball.

Whether Washington is getting a bum deal depends on whom you ask, and whether they feel he represents a public danger. With evidence that Portland appears to be attracting more than its share of registered sex criminals, it’s a question criminal justice officials often have to consider.

Answers won’t come easy. A large number of sex abuse cases involve young men and underage women. None is easily categorized.

As an example of the potential dangers, registered sex offender Mark Beebout, 40, was accused last summer of killing a 32-year-old Portland woman and a 15-year-old girl. Beebout had to registered as a sex offender because of a sex abuse conviction when he was 22 in a case that involved a 14-year-old victim.

Attorney Judith Armatta has spent a good part of her life advocating for the rights of women victims of domestic and sexual violence. She helped set up a battered women’s shelter in Corvallis, and ran a similar Clackamas County shelter. Today, much of her advocacy work is on behalf of sex offenders.

Armatta’s perspective changed when her 23-year-old grandnephew was required to register as a sex offender after pleading guilty to statutory rape in Washington County three years ago. The victim, Armatta says, was a runaway 15-year-old girl who insisted she was 18.

Armatta’s view of sex offenders has gone through a radical transformation.

“I was always told there was nothing you could do — once a sex offender always a sex offender,” she says. “Now I believe that’s absolutely not true. The category is overly broad.”

Armatta isn’t claiming choir boy status for her grandnephew, who lives with her after his release from prison. She admits he has a history of substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence against his family. But a lifetime label of registered sex offender is not appropriate, she says. He has never been fixated on young girls. He has never forced himself on anybody sexually.

“They think he’s a sex offender, that he’s going to re-offend sexually,” Armatta says. “I don’t think he offended sexually. I think the law is wrong.”

Armatta’s grandnephew is finding it hard to make a life of his own. Last year he took a job canvassing for a political campaign, but was fired when organizers discovered he was a registered sex offender. He can’t find an apartment to rent because background checks reveal his sex offender status. He has a 4-year-old son from a previous relationship. He’s reconciled with the mother, Armatta says, but his probation officer won’t allow him to see his child.

“I’ve worked to protect victims of violence, especially women and children,” Armatta says. “I’m proud of the work we did to change things, and I’ve known there’s this element in the American psyche that has a real hang up around sex. We’re a very sexualized and sexually judgmental society and we’re vindictive.

But Oregon has made huge strides in eliminating statutory rape offenders from the registration lists, says Vi Beaty, who administers the sex offender registration program in the state. Since 2008, when a new state law went into effect, few new consensual cases involving men younger than 23 and girls younger than 18 have resulted in sex offender registration, Beaty says.

In addition, Beaty says more than 200 men who had been convicted of statutory rape have had their names removed from the Oregon registry.

Despite claims by critics of Oregon’s policy, Portlanders caught exposing themselves or urinating in public one time don’t end up as registered sex offenders, says Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Caroline Wong. But viewing child pornography — another controversial offense — does rate registration.

On the other hand, the law allows district attorneys great latitude in the plea bargaining process, and a number of offenders have told the Tribune that other Oregon county prosecutors are significantly harsher when it comes to sex crimes.

Alissa Ackerman, a criminal justice professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma, is convinced that only a small percentage of sex offenders will commit new sex crimes when released from prison. Ackerman says that most offenders who commit crimes against children are not sexually attracted to children. Instead, she says, they are people who under stress take out their frustration on children in their own families “because they are easy targets, basically.” Those offenders, Ackerman says, can be taught how to deal with their stress and will be at low-risk to re-offend.

by: SEX OFFENDER RECIDIVISM, HARRIS & HANSON, 2004 - How many sex offenders will re-offend?Fewer than one in five of the sex offenders Ackerman studied victimized a stranger, and those were the most likely to re-offend sexually. Many of the others, she says, stigmatized by their label, turned to property crime out of financial desperation or violent crime “to drown away their pain.”

Oregon program administrator Beaty is convinced her program deters sex crimes in a way that escapes data detection by academic researchers.

“A lot of the offenders who call in and talk to me say, ‘If I would have known I would have to go through all this, I never would have (committed the crime),’ ” Beaty says. “How do the researchers measure a negative?”

Back into the shadows?

Camille Cooper isn’t ready to show leniency even toward young men convicted of statutory rape or adults convicted of possessing child pornography. Cooper is director of legislative affairs for PROTECT, a Knoxville, Tenn., organization she calls “the NRA for abused children.”

“This whole idea that we need to protect these offenders is not taking into account what the victim goes through and what (the offenders) have done,” says Cooper. “The victim has a lifetime of trauma. The offender should have a lifetime of accountability for it.”

Critics of current policies often point to the number of offenders who are registered after a conviction for possessing child pornography. Cooper says they should be.

“There’s a myth that people who receive child pornography or possess child pornography are harmless. They view it in the privacy of their own home, looking at their own computer, not harming anyone directly. That could not be further from the truth,” she says.

Cooper offers as evidence a controversial 2000 study which surveyed offenders at the Butner prison in North Carolina. The prisoners were serving time simply for possessing child porn, but more than three in four eventually revealed that they had engaged in some hands-on offense such as molesting children.

In recent years, a number of detractors have insisted the Butner findings were flawed. Cooper counters that only 6 to 9 percent of sex offenders even make it on to registries because most sex crimes take place within families and are never reported to police, and others never make it to trial because women and children either won’t testify or aren’t credible witnesses.

“These academics want to set those people free, the worst of the worst, and let them go back into the shadows?” Cooper asks. “We hear these academics debate, and at times it’s really frustrating listening to them. You’d almost think they had a crystal ball. There’s no scientific test that can predict whether someone will re-offend.”

But, Cooper doesn’t favor the system. “The sex offender registry is a political bag of goods,” she says. “They shoved 10 pounds of crap into a one-pound bag and sold it to the public. It does nothing to protect the public because nobody’s really watching these guys.”

The Portland police have three officers charged with keeping tabs on the city’s nearly 4,000 registered sex offenders (many of whom are also under the purview of parole officers). In Cooper’s view, that isn’t enough.

Registered for a lifetime

Those numbers worry Danielle Tudor as well. Tudor was allegedly one of nine victims of convicted rapist Richard Gillmore. As a 17-year-old she was attacked in her parent’s home 26 years ago. Now she worries about Gillmore getting paroled. Gillmore’s mother, she says, lives in her neighborhood.

Tudor is pleased the registry exists for offenders such as Gillmore. There is little doubt in her mind that he will re-offend. “That’s who the registry should be made for, people like him that you know have got things that are ingrained, and I don’t know that you can change that,” she says.

Tudor would like Bridget Sickon’s police detail monitoring Gillmore after his release as closely as possible, and she’s not sure they can do that with so many sex offenders under their watch. She’d like to see registered offenders who stay out of trouble winnowed from the list.

But Tudor, who has fought with the parole board on Gillmore’s proposed release, doesn’t want prison or parole officials to decide if someone they are releasing can be relieved from having to register. Those officials never heard the testimony at the offender’s trial and often don’t have a full picture of what the offender is capable of doing, she says. Tudor would prefer a judge at sentencing deciding how long an offender should be registered after release.

“There’s got to be something they can do to differentiate between who needs to be on that list for a lifetime and who only needs to be on that list for a period of time,” Tudor says.


Treatment helps, but often limited

Nobody is in a better position than David Schuessler to predict the potential danger from registered sex offenders. Schuessler, director of Innovative Counseling Enterprises in Southwest Portland, has treated close to 1,000 sex criminals, most of them on probation or parole. He’s been working with sex offenders for 13 years.

So how dangerous are these men and women after 18 months to two years of treatment? Schuessler just can’t say. He’s aware of the recidivism data showing that over 10 years, about one in five sex offenders will commit another sex crime. But even that data, he says, isn’t a reliable reflection of what he sees day to day.

“People tend to overestimate,” Schuessler says. “And even 20 percent in 10 years sounds like a lot, but compared to some of the other non-sexual offenses it’s relatively low.”

When clients are sent to Innovative Counseling by Multnomah and Clackamas County probation and parole officers, Schuessler starts with a risk assessment that includes a sexual arousal test considered by many experts to be the single best predictor of future sex offenses.

Gauges are put in place to measure a man’s sexual arousal while a respiration belt measures the effort he is making to control the arousal.

With the gauges in place, the client is shown pictures of men, women and children, each accompanied by a story. About 10 to 20 percent of Schuessler’s clients, when they arrive for treatment, become aroused when shown the pictures of children, though the children in the pictures are all clothed.

Schuessler’s goal, over time, is to have clients display arousal when shown appropriate adult pictures and not become aroused by the photos of children. Treatment includes a weekly group counseling session and homework that might include joining new, appropriate social organizations or keeping a diary to track fantasies.

Schuessler says that when they leave his program, most clients show a decrease in deviant sexual arousal and an increase in age-appropriate arousal. Most, he says, are not classic pedophiles, whose attraction to children is nearly impossible to change. Most of the clients he treats molested children in their home while under stress, many under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Many of the Innovative Counseling clients are suffering from mental illness or are developmentally disabled. Most are labeled at high risk to re-offend. About one in 10 of the sex offenders Schuessler treats is homeless, and a large percentage of the rest live in downtown or Old Town single-room occupancy hotels.

Clients leave with the tools to help them properly focus their sexual interest. But Schuessler says he cannot predict what percent of his clients will continue to use their new psychological tools after they leave treatment.