By Peter Korn
When the knock came at [name withheld]’s door, it came softly, accompanied by: “Hey, [name withheld], come out and talk to me.”
It didn’t take [name withheld] long to figure out who had come calling — the Portland police. And once he knew that, he knew why.
[name withheld] 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 [name withheld] has been refereeing at youth basketball leagues around the city. Technically, [name withheld] 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, [name withheld] says he is still homeless, and caretaking the house in North Portland for a friend.
[name withheld] 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, [name withheld] likely will get a sentence of probation. Under the supervision of a probation officer, Sickon says, [name withheld] probably won’t be allowed to referee youth basketball.
Whether [name withheld] 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 [name withheld], 40, was accused last summer of killing a 32-year-old Portland woman and a 15-year-old girl. [name withheld] 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 [name withheld] 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.
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?”