It was the first day of class, and I felt pretty comfortable in the row I was seated in. I had been looking forward to making new friends, and had set a goal to become acquainted with those I was in classes with. One person in particular was exceptionally nice to me. I didn’t think much of it, besides feeling a slight relief that someone else was making an effort besides me. As the class went on, the niceness continued. The compliments increased. It felt off. When I began to meet their too-nice words with uncomfortable shifts in my seat, they stopped. But it wasn’t long after that I noticed another female student had been singled out for the affection. Near the end of the semester, I found out that “nice” person was a registered sex offender.
My mind reeled. How many other students had been subject to the seemingly innocent charm? How many others knew? How many others felt the way I did? Weeks earlier, I had seen girls younger than me assisting them for a project. I can almost always find a way to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but in this case, the possible repercussions of trust made it impossible. I had never thought about sex offenders’ presence on the Oklahoma City Community College campus until then. I was less afraid for myself, and more afraid for those who were more vulnerable. I had to know: are sex offenders on campus a threat to the average student?
Upon researching the subject, I was surprised to find that statistically, they are not. Jill Levenson, sex crimes researcher at Lynn University, found that the average person believes 75 percent of registered sex offenders will reoffend. The actual numbers are nowhere close to 75 percent. Canadian sex crime researchers Kelly E. Morton-Bourgon and R. Karl Hanson conducted a quantitative review of sex offender recidivism rates (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend), and found a rate of only 14 percent over five years. The rates increased over time, though, reaching 24 percent at 15 years. While any percentage of reoffense is frightening to think about, a nearly 50 percent difference is a hefty comparison.
I began this research thinking I’d find horrible statistics backing up my fear of the person in my class. But I began to start thinking differently about how sex offenders are handled by the government and the restrictions that define them.
While I strongly believe that victims should be protected at all costs, I was beginning to see the holes in the system that holds sex offenders accountable. One study in particular changed my views on residency restriction laws. Richard Tewksbury of the University of Louisville conducted an online survey to collect data from 584 different family members of sex offenders. The study found that employment problems and subsequent financial hardships were the most pressing issues according to family members. Residential restriction laws added housing crisis on top of the other challenges.
The unintended consequences of this all can result in homelessness and instability, usually pushing offenders to rural areas with less probationary supervision or access to specialized treatment. This can get in the way of treatment effectiveness, inadvertently causing more recidivism and re-victimization.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 93 percent of all sex crimes are perpetrated by offenders that the victims knew prior to the offense, and 60 percent of the offenses happen in the victim’s home or the home of a person they know. In 2004, the Colorado Department of Public Safety used mapping software to track 13 sex offenders who recidivated. The recidivists were located randomly and were no more likely than non-recidivists to live within 1,000 feet of a school. The numbers show that residency restrictions don’t prevent sex offenders from recidivism, and they don’t make anyone much less likely to be a potential victim.
So when it comes to the OCCC campus, do sex offenders pose any real threat to students?
Training Officer and Community Liaison Steven Swinford said that there is no evidence that there’s been an issue that posed a threat to students having registered sex offenders at OCCC.
“Any reports of any incidents have been investigated, but we haven’t found anything to be of a significant threat up to this point. But for me to predict the future would be difficult,” Swinford said.
In an email, OCCC Title IX Coordinator Dr. Regina Switzer said, “Every new employee must pass a background check, and then we check every current employee every year against the Oklahoma sex offender registry. As an open access institution, we cannot prohibit students who are registered sex offenders from attending here, however they are required to register with the OCCC CPD.”
According to the Oklahoma Sex Offenders Registration Act, each local law enforcement authority must make its sex offender registry available upon request, without restriction. There is a list of registered sex offenders on campus that students can access at the Campus Police Department upon request, but the list isn’t long, said Swinford.
“We only have three to four register per year on average, so not a whole lot,” he said. “When it comes to someone that’s going to register, if someone’s going to want to come here, since it’s higher learning, they have to come to the security or the police department after registering. They fill out some forms that go into a binder, and that goes into a master file. Anytime their status changes, they’re supposed to come here.”
When asked about the issue of keeping registered sex offenders from being in classes with concurrent high school students, Swinford said that the CPD has no involvement.
“Chief Piazza made contact with the District Attorney’s office to get an opinion, because there was concern about the high school here. The DA’s opinion was that registered sex offenders are allowed to come here as long as they register and enroll in classes. That’s not against the law, they’re not restricted from doing that,” Swinford said.
Though, if a sex offender was loitering or hanging around in an area with high school students when they didn’t have a reason to be there, they could be charged, Swinford said. There have been no incidents so far.
I began this with a different mindset than I’m finishing with. When I think of sex offenders, I wonder about the system in place that may inhibit their progress, in addition to the threat they may pose. I breathe easier now knowing the likelihood of recidivism, but have an entirely different set of problems to be aware of. How do we effectively protect potential victims while reintegrating sex offenders back into society?