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Predators and Prey 

Are today's tough sex-offender laws and registries doing more harm than good?

There's a house in my neighborhood that's mostly like any other, with its tidy trim, its agave-dotted yard and its slightly askew metal mailbox. Anyone living nearby has driven past it hundreds of times without a second glance.

In this house dwells a man few of us have ever seen, though we already know his face, and we know a bit about his past.

You see, we were told by U.S. mail. The card arrived one morning, with the man's picture and a warning. A sex offender had moved in, we read. This has made for interesting, if tentative, conversations beneath the old mesquites lining our narrow sidewalks.

Should we take precautions against this man who exposed himself to a minor 10 years before? If so, what precautions? Or do we greet our well-announced newcomer as we would any other, with a smile and a nod?

Some months after the stranger moved in, this otherwise unremarkable home has become a testing ground for suppositions long and perhaps too faithfully held. At least by me.

According to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, there are 14,549 registered sex offenders statewide, and 1,574 in Pima County. Most are clustered in poorer parts of town.

Want to know how many sex offenders live in your neighborhood? Simply go online (azsexoffender.org). The faces are right there to see, some defiant, some woebegone, a few quite frightening, others seemingly baffled.

But know this as well: Statistically, sex offenders don't tend to recommit near their homes.

If that doesn't make you feel any better, consider these numbers: According to the federal Center for Sex Offender Management, between 60 and 80 percent of young victims are molested by a friend or relative. More than 75 percent of female rape victims were assaulted by current or ex-husbands, dates or live-in partners. Only about 30 percent of rapes are ever reported, and most perpetrators will never spend a day in jail.

It's believed that sexual crimes against children are also vastly underreported; researchers estimate that less than 10 percent of sex offenders are under law enforcement or court supervision. That leaves 90 percent who have never been caught.

In other words, the guys on the postcards are probably less of a worry than the guys who are not.

But there's another point to be made: True sexual predators count for just a small fraction of those convicted of sex crimes, and hype over sensational cases has prompted a flurry of hard-fisted laws that increasingly snag innocent and trivial offenders in their web.

They can be the college freshman hooking up with some minor at a beer bash, or the guy caught whizzing on a tree, or the husband in a custody battle who gets pegged as a molester by his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Depending upon the circumstances, all of these "perps" can be marked for life. Try getting a job or an apartment or a decent life with "sex offender" on your resume.

All sex crimes are obviously not equal. There truly are monsters out there—predators and child molesters and sociopathic freaks. But those they have attacked aren't their only victims. In a very real way, they've made victims of us all.

Another neighborhood, not far away. He'll talk if I don't use his name. We sit outside under a concrete canopy, and we measure our words. Because he's a man of faith, I'll call him Father Ted. By request, I won't offer a description, except to say that he's a big man, bearing that wily hybrid of street smarts and hard religion common to Gospel Rescue Missions. With which, it happens, Father Ted was affiliated after pulling a year in an Oregon jail for narcotics.

I should also mention that I've tried several times to arrange interviews with registered sex offenders, working through counseling agencies and halfway houses, with no success. Little surprise that none of those men—and nearly all are men—care for more of a spotlight than they already command. I suppose I could visit the faces on the Internet, but in those grim mug shots, they do not look like fellows who wish to be bothered. So I go for the next best thing, which is Father Ted.

He operates a sprawling, melancholy Tucson apartment complex that rents exclusively to ex-cons, including a half-dozen sex offenders at any given time. "That's the most I can have," he says, "before the neighbors start screaming."

To Father Ted, this suggests a bit of hypocrisy. "They complain that I bring an unsafe element into the neighborhood. Now I'll tell you what—for five years, we've tried to get a dope house around the corner busted. When they finally busted the house, everybody else in the neighborhood acted like they didn't know the guy was a dope dealer—when he'd already been busted for dealing in that house a couple of years before."

Even so, every time the folks around here get reminded that Father Ted has sex offenders on the premises, they make his life miserable. So, along with his tenants, Father Ted prefers a low profile.

This does appear to be a tight operation. No dope, no booze, no women. Obviously no kids. And anyone hoping to relocate here is first treated to a fierce tête-à-tête. "They all sit down and have an intense little interview with me," says Father Ted. "I don't take stalkers. I don't take repeat offenders, regardless of what the (DPS) website says. When the guys are coming here from prison, I look over a lot more stuff than just whether they can pay for a bed."

These offenders face an equally rigorous regime from probation officers. "They have to fill out a form every week saying where they're at, when they're going to be there, when they're going to get home," Father Ted says. "Not to exaggerate, but they almost have to tell the cops when they're going to take a shower, because if their surveillance officer shows up here, and they're in the shower, and there isn't an answer at the door, these guys in (intensive probation) get in trouble for not answering the door."

Still, Father Ted's tenants have it better than many others. According to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch, residency restrictions in several states effectively banish registered sex offenders from most communities. They can be prohibited from living with their families or returning to their own homes after prison. Some offenders in Miami, says the report, have taken to dwelling beneath bridges—one of the few areas where they're allowed under city residency restrictions.

As we talk, I gaze around this broad, dusty drive dotted by cottages. Metal chairs fill a few porches. On some of those chairs, men in T-shirts sit and gaze at the mid-morning sun. There's a grapevine that brings such men to this quiet place, and it weaves among probation officers and social workers and ex-cons and guys still in the joint. Here, life is a constant inquiry—cameras dot the property, and probation officers are thick—but it beats some fleabag hotel on Benson Highway. It's definitely better than living under a bridge.

According to Father Ted, law enforcement likes his establishment because so many offenders are bunched together. That makes keeping tabs a lot easier. And Father Ted doesn't pity most guys who come to him. Still, there are a few for whom he feels sympathy.

Such as the 24-year-old who had a 17-year-old girlfriend. He worked two grunt jobs. The girlfriend was live-in. So was her mom, in the second bedroom.

The mom was scoring free rent, until she wasn't. "Girlfriend got pregnant, and the mom turned him in," says Father Ted. "She was losing her free rent, because they needed her room for the baby."

Father Ted readily admits that this fellow didn't make the smartest moves. "But it wasn't some 49-year-old guy and a 16-year-old girl," he says. "And now the guy has to live with 'sex-offender' attached to his name for the rest of his life."

Eric Janus is dean of Minnesota's William Mitchell College of Law, and author of Failure to Protect: America's Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State. He writes that hype about sexual predators—starting with high-profile cases such as the 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey—prompted a series of get-tough laws that may actually hurt more than they help.

This hysteria has driven "preventive" statutes such as those in Arizona, which allow for the indefinite commitment of "sexually violent persons" in secure mental wards after their prison sentences are complete. It has led to broader definitions of what constitutes a sex crime—including so-called "Romeo and Juliet" laws that land teenagers in prison for having underage sex. It also led to "Megan's Law," named after Megan Kanka, which compels states to maintain a public sexual-offender registry.

Not only are these laws largely ineffective, says Janus, but they also distort the way we view sexual violence, resulting in what he calls a "vicious cycle" of bad policy. "We have this idea in our heads of the sexual predator hanging out in parking lots and attacking women or kids out of the blue, and often murdering them," he says. "Of course, that happens, but it's extremely, extremely rare. It's not the pattern of most sexual offenses."

He says this phenomenon dates back to the mid-1990s, when there was a spike in the number of news stories about sexual violence and sexual offenders—and an even sharper increase in the use of the words "sexual predator."

The trend dovetailed with "determinate" sentencing laws, which emerged in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs, and required long, non-negotiable prison terms for certain crimes. "This came out of Reagan conservatism that considered the old way too soft-headed, and based on therapy and everything," says Janus. "Now we were really going to punish these people, and that meant you put them away for a certain number of years."

In earlier times, many of those same offenders would have been put on tightly supervised parole, he says. But under the new "determinate" policies, when offenders' sentences were up, they were simply released. "There wasn't any way of keeping them, even if the authorities were really, really worried about them as a matter of safety. So what you saw was lot of really horrendous crimes by recently released offenders."

That coincided with a new consciousness, largely driven by the feminist movement, he says, about the seriousness and scope of violence against women. "Put all of those things together, and there was a coming realization that we weren't doing enough to protect against sex crimes."

From that came community-notification laws, and the civil commitment of violent sex offenders. It's no coincidence that many new statutes from that period were called "sexually violent predator" laws, thus feeding what many considered to be mass panic. "Once you have the spotlight on these horrendous but rare crimes," says Janus, "people get the notion that, 'My God, that could happen to anybody!'"

So starts the vicious circle. "The more attention paid to these crimes, the more worried people become—and the more they demand perfect safety, and closing the all the loopholes, tightening the laws—spreading the net wider."

The result? "You get the laws where now we're doing community notification on tens of thousands of (offenders)," says Janus. "And it becomes useless, because all you know is that somebody who exposed themselves 10 years ago is living in your neighborhood. Well, what are you going to do with that information?"

His perspective is reinforced by a 2009 report from New York's Vera Institute of Justice. Commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department, the research shows that saddling sex offenders with increasingly longer sentences for a wider variety of crimes—often without the possibility of parole—may result in more pre-trial plea bargains, and potentially less reporting of sexual abuse by family members who balk at condemning a relative to decades in jail.

And though registration helps police track suspects, the study shows that rates of registration compliance are dropping, and law-enforcement agencies are often too resource-strapped to track down scofflaws.

Website postings and notification by mail appear to have the same mixed results, says the report. While such postings may make people feel more secure, research suggests that most offenders are already known to their victims. Such notification has the corollary effect of making it harder for offenders to obtain jobs and housing—boosting the likelihood that they'll re-offend.

Underlying all of this, critics contend, is raw political expediency.

"It's one of those issues that, when someone is running for office, it's a no-lose to get tough about, whether there's a reason to do it or not," says Tucson defense attorney Richard Lougee. As a result, "every year, the law gets more punitive, and irrationally so."

That creates victims on both sides, he says. "There is no constituency for the falsely accused. Nobody really cares about this issue until the police knock on their door at 7 in the morning and say that their ex-wife is accusing them (of molestation)."

Such charges are also notoriously difficult to defend, says Lougee, who has specialized in sex-offender cases since the early 1980s. "There are no types of cases where there are more false convictions. That makes these geologic sentences even more troubling."

He estimates that, among inmates in the Arizona prison system's sex-offender units, "somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 or 30 percent of them are factually innocent." That occurs, he says, because the system is rigged against them. "Prior acts of misconduct—which are not admissible in other cases—come into play. There is a whole body of pseudo literature—created by the child advocates—about the truthfulness of (children's) allegations when they are made. There's a whole universe of tools and techniques which have been crafted for these types of cases which do not ensure reliable convictions."

The most egregious miscarriages involve divorce and custody battles, he says, with the mother accusing the father. "There's no faster way of taking care of child custody than pushing that button."

All of which leads to wrenching decisions. It's not unusual, says Lougee, for him to advise clients he knows are innocent to plea bargain rather than face decades in prison.

Lougee also blames a crusading Pima County Attorney's Office for a number of false convictions. "There is a policy in that office that, when something comes in the door, it doesn't get thrown out," he says. "I've had many cases where my client has faced life in prison on the original charges, and I've proven to the prosecutor that my client couldn't have done it—that he was innocent—and he was still required to plea to something, so that he wouldn't face the risk of these geologic sentences."

However, County Attorney Barbara LaWall says the numbers argue otherwise. Over the past five years, for example, she points to 122 violent sexual-assault cases presented—and 108 dismissals. During that same period, 436 child-molestation cases landed in the county attorney's office, "and we only filed on 230 of them," she says.

The picture changes a bit for sex-exploitation charges, where 83 out of 108 cases were pursued between 2004 and 2009. "You can see that there's a higher filing rate," says LaWall. "These are folks with child pornography on their computers, or who have engaged in chat groups where they are exploiting or luring children for sexual acts. The evidence is clearer, more definitive and generally not a child's word against an adult's word."

But even those prosecutions require reams of evidence, she says. "We have an ethical responsibility—which we take very seriously—of not bringing cases to the grand jury unless we have sufficient evidence to present the case and prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. That's our burden."

The burden only grows when child molestation is alleged, she says. "Those are probably the most difficult cases we have. You have to look at everything surrounding the situation: What did the child say happened? How old was the child? To whom did they report? How quickly did they report? Was there any physical evidence? Sometimes there's bruising; sometimes there are tears. Is there any evidence of other behaviors surrounding the offense?

"We look at everything. It's not just the word of a child."

In prison, sex offenders are segregated into special units. This is for their own protection; they are routinely beaten and killed by other inmates. In that jungle of base human instincts, they have become modern pariahs.

On the outside, if they ever get that far, sex offenders face a new thicket of probation officers and piss tests and surprise visits that are decidedly not of a social nature.

Kathy Waters is director of adult probation services for the Arizona Supreme Court. She says sex offenders face more post-release rigors than other former inmates. In most areas of the state, "they're basically on lifetime supervision if convicted of certain crimes—especially dangerous crimes against children."

But that doesn't necessarily mean garden-variety sex offenders are unusually likely to commit another crime. "Maricopa County has done many studies," she says, "and they've found that, of the many people on their caseloads in adult probation, (sex offenders) are the lowest group of recidivists.

"You can be a sex offender and not a child predator," she adds, pointing to television shows that "paint sex offenders with a very broad brush. There are different degrees of offenses. But it depends upon what the laws are. You could be a sex offender for urinating in public."

According to Waters, Arizona currently has 45,000 sex offenders on standard probation, and 2,200 on intensive probation. Another 38,000 fall under what's called "administrative probation," meaning they could be in treatment, or are being supervised in another state.

Annual costs for intensive probation are about $7,000 per offender, per year. Standard probation is approximately $1,200 annually.

But that money is spent precisely, says Waters, who ranks Arizona's probation system among the nation's most effective. "What we're trying to do ... is have the right people under supervision," with monitoring geared to their risk of re-offending. For instance, those placed on intensive probation "would be the higher-risk offenders. ... It would be because they have things going on—a criminogenic risk—which got them into trouble to begin with, and which they need to work on."

While such extensive monitoring isn't cheap, she says it's far less costly—and far more productive—than keeping every offender behind bars. "I would rather see people on probation than in prison. It's one of the best sentencing options our courts have, rather than incarceration. And I think that our courts use it that way—as long as they can ensure public safety, they utilize probation. The courts here have a lot of confidence in their probation department."

It's a cloudy day, and a gray light sifts into the hushed, midtown offices of Counseling and Consulting Services, which, among other things, operates court-ordered therapy sessions for sex offenders. Agency co-founder Dave Harvey has the knee-crossed intensity of a man who must conjure compassion when compassion does not always freely flow. One of his psychologists, Dr. Serena Gorgueiro, sits across from Harvey, while I take up a small couch.

Treatment here ranges from reining in drug and alcohol habits to keeping offenders from isolating themselves—something of a challenge when society would prefer they all congregated in outer space. "That's an issue that we struggle with in group quite often, helping them become more social," says Gorgueiro. "But as they become more social, they have to disclose their offense—especially if they're on probation, because probation has to approve the people they're around, run a Social Security number and everything."

That means they have to get comfortable with talking about the intimate details of their offense—even when they're out on dates. "Your life is no longer your own," says Harvey. "You have to be accountable for where you're going to be during the week. People are going to check and see if you went to work when you said you were going to work. They're going to check to see if you showed up at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. If you're interested in dating somebody, they're going to want to meet that person."

In most cases, of course, probation fills a vital need. And according to experts like Kathy Waters, it's also effective. By contrast, therapy can be a relative matter. "There are different types of sexual proclivities," says Dr. Gorgueiro, "that are more difficult to treat than others."

Pedophilia ranks high among them. "Usually, when we look at progress, in most cases, that doesn't mean we're going to see someone with the (pedophile) diagnosis totally changing their sexual interest in children," she says. "We certainly want to help them expand and develop relationships with age-appropriate folks. But most of the progress is measured by how they develop their self-management skills—how do they not get into situations where they're around children? How do they not get in positions where they're tempted to offend—or just in a position where someone's going to accuse them of that?"

These therapists tap into a number of tools to reach that point. Among the most powerful is helping true sex offenders develop empathy for their victims, which means peeling back layers of twisted thinking. "We call it 'significant cognitive distortion,'" says Harvey. "We sometimes hear offenders say something like, 'Well, if that 4-year-old hadn't been so seductive and hadn't been flirting with me.' Those kinds of things."

Enter reality. "Part of developing empathy," Harvey continues, "is (the client) moving from, 'Well, you know, I touched her, and she really liked it, and people aren't as nice to her as I am,' to really understanding the trauma you're creating with that type of offense."

He insists that breakthroughs do occur. "Within the parameters we're talking about, I think it's a treatable subset of the population," he says. "But people within that population are always going to be 'risk-managed.'"

Gorgueiro reaches for her notepad and readies to leave, presumably for an afternoon session. Then she stops. "It's not a curable disease," she says. "We're not here to cure. We're here to treat, to prevent."

The examining table at the Southern Arizona Children's Advocacy Center looks like a little blue bus, with tiny headlights, square gray windows and a teddy bear perched on top. It's designed to keep kids from flipping out while doctors poke and probe to learn if the children have been raped or otherwise molested by an adult. Waiting rooms here are likewise populated by rocking chairs and quilts and plush toys. Grinning flowers sprout up from the couch, and a stuffed turtle peeks from beneath elfin pillows.

It is a sad place, dressed up to seem happy, and kids arrive here for a variety of heinous reasons. Some have been beaten. Some have been burned. Others were subjected to long-running sexual assault. In this one-stop-shop for abuse, they are simultaneously calmed and coaxed to share details.

Upstairs resides a small contingent of detectives with the Pima County Sheriff's Department. Down the hall is space for the county attorney, a state Child Protective Services' sex-abuse unit, and bunking quarters for doctors who do on-call forensic exams.

There's a room with computers to scan for Internet child porn and a VCR to review video child porn. In the interview room, a small chart is taped to the back of the door. It lists euphemisms for a penis that children might hear, words such as "Captain Winkie" and "wiener dog" and "tally wacker."

This place is engineered to handle human-inflicted trauma in the smoothest possible way, with a tight choreography that separates child from parent, provides a safe zone for interviews, and brings kids around to that examining table shaped like a little blue bus. "The children go in kind of a racetrack format, from what they need to do first to what they need to do next," says Wilene Lampert, the center's executive director. "Each is a spot where they can comfortably stay before they go to the next step."

We're joined by Sgt. Sonia Pesqueira, a no-nonsense cop who runs the units for the sheriff's department that deal with crimes against children and adult sex abuse.

With cases that land here, she says, nailing the abusers means catching every detail. "These investigations are done just so, and they're very consistent. That makes it harder for the (perpetrators) to have a defense for some of the things they do."

It also helps prevent abuses on the other side, says Lampert. "The interviews are much more carefully designed to avoid those big cases that happened, for example, with the child-care centers."

She's referring to the string of child-sex-ring scandals in the 1980s that ensnared teachers at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and the Wee Care Nursery School in Malden, Mass.

Those cases prompted hysteria about day-care centers. Although the allegations were eventually debunked—and in some cases, the children's testimony appeared to be coached by adults—they nonetheless helped launch today's sex-offender statutes. "But the detectives now have a much better and broader knowledge of what's involved, and how best to gather those facts, so that you don't have some of the errors that were made in the 1980s," says Lampert.

Says Pesqueira, "It's not just one-sided, 'Let's get this guy put in jail,' and we're done with it." Instead, questions likely to be raised by the defense attorney are pondered. "You'd better meet those head-on from the beginning, and try to dispel any of them to have an ironclad case for prosecution."

It's quite obvious that Pesqueira despises the offenders who force children to come here. She tells me she's seen victims of everything from minor beatings "to the most horrendous sexual abuse, repeated sexual abuse every time that child comes home from school."

Society "calls it child molestation," she says. "Those are kind of patterned words—sexual conduct with a minor, sexual abuse. But it's a lot more horrendous than that. It is full-blown rape. That's what some of these children are suffering from, from the time that they were toddlers."

From her perspective, those who prey on children are beyond rehabilitation. "Once it's there, it's always there," she says. "Pornography now is so widespread and prevalent that a lot of them are acting on their impulses. Especially when they have access to things such as live video footage of children being tortured and sexually assaulted."

There are online chat rooms, she says, where offenders discuss how to groom a child for penetration, and mastering the art of man-child love. "These are the things they talk to each other about when they're not in the counselor's office. They're going to have validation from each other, and they're going to re-offend."

But Pesqueira also believes that the effectiveness of sex-offender notification is limited, at best. Those faces on the Internet don't necessarily pose the greatest risk, she says. "It's the one who has never been caught but has been in the picture the whole time—the janitor at the school, or the nearby neighbor. Those are the ones who are the successful offenders, who continue to re-offend, and have never been prosecuted."

Polly Klaas was just 12 years old on the night in October 1993 when she was snatched from a slumber party in Petaluma, Calif. When Richard Allen Davis was convicted in her kidnapping and subsequent murder, the ex-con with a history of assaulting women raised both middle fingers to the court. When he was later sentenced to death, he accused Polly's father of molesting her. Marc Klaas lunged toward Allen, before relinquishing to deputies who led him from the courtroom.

Today, Marc Klaas is president of the KlaasKids Foundation, which advocates for safer communities, and stiffer sentences for violent and repeat offenders. He disagrees with Pesqueira's take on notifications. "Back in the 1990s, we didn't have registries, and we didn't know who these guys were," he says. "And their privacy was more important than our kids' safety. In light of that, Megan's Law was passed, putting children's safety as a higher priority than the privacy of people who would commit crimes against them. It gives law enforcement the ability to jumpstart investigations by knowing who these guys are and where they are.

"In balance, I think the sex-offender registries are necessary and important," Klaas says. "I just wish the government would take them more seriously."

He points to the San Diego case of John Gardner, who in April admitted killing two teens and raping one of them. Gardner had "a history of violence and a successful prosecution for sex crimes, and as such—knowing who this guy was—they could have taken action to civilly commit him," says Klaas. "And no steps were taken. As a result of that, he was released from prison and went on to murder two young girls."

In California, he says, "Jessica's Law" requires law-enforcement authorities to evaluate violent sexual offenders when they're released from prison, to see if they should be civilly committed to secure mental facilities. While the practice raises serious civil-rights questions, Klaas says it saves lives. The alternative, he says, "is putting these guys back on the streets to commit more mayhem and murders."

On May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the side of Klaas and other advocates, ruling that some sex offenders can be held indefinitely under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. The law is named for a 6-year-old child who was abducted and killed in 1981.

I'm on the northwest side of Tucson, in a tidy trailer park run by yet another man who asks that I not use his name nor otherwise describe him and his small establishment. That is not because he is a sex offender, but because, like Father Ted, he takes them in. And just like at Father Ted's place, none of his tenants will talk to me.

I will call this man Albert. According to Albert, his trailers are always full since he started renting to these offenders 15 years ago. "They just find me," he says. "Sometimes the parole department tells the guys about it. Sometimes they have friends in prison who are getting out."

Albert says he gained this clientele "by accident, really. A guy needed a place to live, and he was (a sex offender), and I said, 'OK,' and I started renting to him. Then the parole department asked me if I had any more trailers, and they filled them all up."

Such livelihoods require a keen eye to detail. For instance, each renter is thoroughly screened before they move in. "Sometimes," says Albert, "when you sit down and talk, they're not as bad as how their record looks, and sometimes they're not as good as how their record looks."

We sit on Albert's porch, and he leans forward with his hands on his knees as he talks. He nudges the concrete with a toe of his boot. "Yes, they're sex offenders," he says, "and I can hate what they did. But I can't hate them. I mean, these are some pretty good old boys. They just made an awful mistake."

However, like Father Ted, Albert doesn't leave room for any future mistakes. "They can't have any women back here unless they call me. No drinking. If there's any drugs, they're history."

It's a clean, no-bullshit operation, and Albert is not without compassion for the men who have rehashed their lives around him. He pauses and looks out at the trailers, lined up nearly to the road. Then he leans back in his chair.

"Listen, I don't pass judgment," he says. "But I can tell you they have a hell of a time finding a job or anything else. All they want to do have a place to live, have a car, go out to see a movie, and have some fun. These guys don't bother anybody. But they'll carry that brand around forever."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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