Saturday, August 25, 2012

For law enforcement and neighbors, sex offender clusters present difficult problem

This is an article from the Mobile County Lagniappe, a local interest paper. I thought it was a very well written piece, not just because I'm in it.

For law enforcement and neighbors, sex offender clusters present difficult problem

By Katie Nichols
AUGUST 7, 2012

A grandmother sits outside her West Mobile home watching her 6-year-old grandson do figure eights on a bicycle. A typical summertime scene played out in most residential neighborhoods every day until the threatening skies of an afternoon thunderstorm forces little ones and their caretakers safely back inside. But little did this grandmother know there was something far more potentially threatening than the dark afternoon skies living less than a mile away.

The grandmother interviewed by Lagniappe seemed shocked to learn a "cluster” of sex offenders live so close to her. But how could she know? Her home falls just outside the zone required for notification of a sex offender’s presence.

"There’s how many sex offenders over there?” asked the grandmother, who wished to remain anonymous. "There’s 12 sex offenders just up there? Well, he ain’t coming out here by himself anymore.”

The grandmother lives close to one of three groupings of more than 10 sex offenders in Mobile County. She just happens to live near the largest inside the city limits — the Taylor Motel, located at 2598 Government Boulevard. According to county records, 12 convicted sex offenders currently live at the motel.

The grandmother starts to gather the kid’s bike and other toys and said, "He’s not going to be around any of them. I’d trust a murderer with him before I did a pedophile.”

While the grandmother worries about her young grandson, men who are "forced” to live in  sparse cinder block motel rooms, like those at the Taylor, say they have served their time, but they’re still in a virtual prison. 

Sex offenders all over the nation are convening together, and not because they want to live with other sex criminals, but because the laws are inadvertently creating these "clusters.”

A sex offender cluster is a concentrated group of registered sex offenders who live at the same address. These typically can form in motels and mobile home parks, but can also develop in some apartment complexes. "Clustering” is happening all over the country because, according to experts, it is an "unintended consequence” of state laws that limit where offenders can live.

In Mobile County, there are three clusters with more than 10 offenders living permanently. The largest grouping of sex offenders in Mobile County is at a modest RV park in Irvington, with 15 offenders living at 7530 Highway 90, according to OffenderSearch, an online database for sheriff’s offices. The two other clusters are in Mobile and are less than five miles apart. Twelve sex offenders live at Taylor Motel, and 10 offenders live at Crest Hotel, 4421 Government Blvd., according to OffenderSearch.

Every sex offender Lagniappe spoke to freely admitted they are social pariahs. Securing a decent job, housing or a normal life is nearly impossible, but it can happen if you luck into finding a person willing to help, which is rare.

One person who saw a need for a space for sex offenders to live is Bill Buckner, who owns and operates the RV park in Irvington. 

"I’ve been letting sex offenders stay here since 2002, but I’ve owned the place since 1998,” he said. "I do it because a lot of them have no other place to go. I have some mighty fine guys out there, and I have some that aren’t.”

Buckner doesn’t have anything against sex offenders, but doesn’t put up with violent ones.

"I don’t have to run them out of here … the police do that,” he said. "I don’t have a big turnover like some of the other places. Right now I have two or three guys in jail because they weren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. A lot of the guys here are trying.”

Buckner is clearly respected by the tenants and for good reason. The detectives in charge of monitoring the sex offenders call him when there’s a problem. 

"It’s not my responsibility to watch them, but, yeah, I do take it as my own,” he said. "If they’re doing what they should, then it’s better for everyone.”

Even though most of Buckner’s tenants are appreciative of his kindness, not everyone likes having an area teeming with sex offenders in their city. Buckner talked about people’s reaction to his tenants and said once people find out they either treat him like a sex offender, which he is not, or don’t really care.

"I can tell when people have a problem. They don’t have to say anything, but I’ve been around the block and can tell when it bothers them,” he said. "You have other people that don’t hold it against you and then you have those that do. It doesn’t bother me though. I’m doing what I think I should.”

One of the people who support Buckley’s decision happens to be residing at the RV Park. Don, who is not a sex offender, didn’t want his last name revealed and has lived in the park on and off for 13 years, said living in the park is "extremely tense.”

Living among sex offenders isn’t Don’s wish, but he said sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

"I wish (Buckner) wouldn’t have done it, but he’s a great person and friend so I’ll respect his decision,” Don said. "There are some people here who I think shouldn’t be on the list and then there are others that shouldn’t be living.”

Don motioned to an RV just a few feet from his camper and said, "This guy here is a piece of trash. He’s a real pedophile. You got guys like him who are just sick and then you got guys that work, try to do right and make something out of themselves. They’re the ones who shouldn’t be on the list.”

Don isn’t just an average person living amongst sex offenders. A long time ago, Don said, a pedophile took one of the most precious things in his life.

"I had a child killed by a sex offender,” he said with tears in his eyes. "That pedophile killed my 9-year-old daughter. I will never get over that. My wife Betty, who is now dead, never got over it. 

"There’s no place in this world for a pedophile,” he added.

The grandmother near Taylor Motel felt the same way.

"If you’re found guilty of hurting a child like that, then … I just don’t know. People like that can’t be with the rest of civilization. There’s something just wrong with them, and I don’t think they can get better,” she said. "It’s like once you have that against you, then the rest of the world … the regular world, is against you.”

The sex offenders interviewed said they feel the same — that there are few places for them, and they’re always against everyone else. 

"It was incredibly hard for me to find a place,” said convicted sex offender Ron Morrison who lives at the RV Park. "When I got out of prison the law was you couldn’t leave as a sex offender if you didn’t have an address. You couldn’t be homeless and be a registered sex offender. 

"Well, I spent an extra 20 days in prison because I didn’t have anywhere to go.”

Morrison was one of many sex offenders who spoke with Lagniappe who was at one time homeless. Morrison however, has a different set of challenges. 

"I was living in the woods because I didn’t have anywhere else to go and I almost died,” he said. "I was out there for weeks without supplies for my colostomy. Anyway, I walked out of the woods without any clothes on beside my drawers and a couple of people just happened to pass by. They called 9-1-1 and I spent a long time in the hospital. I didn’t want to live in the woods, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

M.C. Hudson and Gary Padgett, who both live at the RV Park, also had difficult experiences finding a place to live that are accepted by state law. 

"It’s pretty tough,” Hudson said. "I’d been several places before here. Whenever the fliers (notifying about a sex offender) go out, that’s when you get evicted and you gotta move again.”

Even among sex offenders, they tend to separate themselves from each other.

During interviews, a clear line separating convicted pedophiles, a person attracted to children, and other sex offenders formed quickly. Non-sex offenders and sex-offenders alike classified pedophiles as the lowest of the low. Other sex offenders who said they should one day be removed the registry also stated pedophiles should never be let out of prison. 

"There’s a lot of people on the list that shouldn’t be,” Morrison said. "I was convicted 21 years ago of fondling my niece. My stepdaughter started that mess and even my niece’s mom said I didn’t do anything. I pleaded guilty before I knew what it meant. I haven’t been convicted of any other sex offense since, but I’m still a sex offender.”

Morrison, who was convicted of sexual abuse first degree of a 6-year-old, supported the idea of others that pedophiles are a lower class of sex offender. 

"I don’t see how anyone can want a child like that,” he said. "It’s not right.”

Each sex offender interviewed said pedophiles shouldn’t be allowed out of prison, but argued for leniency for their own situations, although some had been convicted of abusing children under 12 years old.

A remedy for the clustering and living arrangements in general for sex offenders is not something easily solved.

The problem, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said, is no one wants sex offenders living near schools and daycares nor do people want sex offender clusters, but the two create each other.

"There are very few places in the city of Mobile where a sex offender can live, so that’s why you get the clustering,” Cochran said. "It’s easier to find places to live for a sex offender in rural areas, but then they are away from public transportation and places where they get treatment for mental problems and drug or alcohol problems.”

The solution is something that evades legislators and law enforcement officials alike. 

"No one wants to appear to be sympathetic to sex offenders especially elected officials,” Cochran said. "That being said, I’m not sure what can be done to deal with clusters and sex offenders living near places where there are children.

"I think if there was a place where sex offenders could live sort of separately and get the help they need would be the best, but that would probably be a problem somehow too.”

In Mobile County, there are 185 active registered sex offenders according to Cochran. Keeping up with them, including the 19 homeless offenders can be tricky, but technology has helped with the problem.

"We now are part of the state’s system that people can check 24 hours a day,” he said. "The deputies can use that to put an address in and see if it violates any rule of living 1,000-feet from a school or daycare.”

Although technology has helped with tracking, ever-changing laws typically mean new challenges for law enforcement, but sometimes the new laws can help agencies.

"Well, usually the laws make it more difficult, but recently a law was passed that sex offenders can leave prison without an address. 

"It used to be that we would have to hold them until they found a place to live. That meant I’d have a lot of sex offenders who had served their time just sitting in prison, which costs money.

"Well, now they can be homeless as long as they check in every week. They have to give us an area they live in like a bench or bridge. Even then, they can’t stay in certain areas.”

Keeping up with sex offenders even with dedicated deputies, police, volunteers and technology doesn’t mean there won’t be some who fall through the cracks. 
It became apparent in talking with people who live in clusters that not everyone who is registered at an address actually lives where they say they do.

"Oh, that guy hasn’t been here in about a month,” Don said. "There are a lot of them who say they live here, but don’t. They get caught here though because Bill and I’ll tell the police.”

An employee at Taylor Motel spoke to Lagniappe on the condition of anonymity. The employee went down a list of sex offenders who were supposed to live at the motel.
A number of the offenders moved out weeks ago and were not registered at other locations, lived at the motel only on the weekends or simply held that address, but did not actually live there, the employee said.

Even though the likelihood of changing state laws to help sex offenders is slim-to-none, there are a few offenders who work toward the goal.

Derek Logue is a registered sex offender and unless laws change, he will always need to register or check in anytime he moves or goes on vacation more than a couple of days.
Logue pleaded guilty to sexual assault first degree in 2000 after he had contact with an 11-year-old girl in Alabama. 

After his conviction and three years served in the Bullock County Correctional Facility in Union Springs, Ala., Logue began trying to change laws regarding sex offenders through groups like ReFORM Alabama (Registered Former Offenders Restoration Movement), in which he is active.

Logue, who now lives in Cincinnati, says if he had it his way, people convicted of a sexual offense would serve their time and be done with it. 

"The registry doesn’t work,” he said in a phone interview. "Limiting where sex offenders can live doesn’t work either. We’ve served our time.”

Logue said the rate of recidivism is lower for sex offenders than nearly any other major crime, yet the group is monitored unlike bank robbers, murderers and other criminals.
According to the Bureau of Justice Labor Statistics, the rate of recidivism for sex offenders three years out of prison is 5.3 percent and compared to non-sex offenders released from state prisons, released sex offenders were four times more likely to be rearrested for a sex crime.

The bureau also found about 1 percent of the released prisoners who had served time for murder were arrested for another homicide within three years, and about two percent of the rapists were arrested for another rape within that period.

While murderers and rapists (classified separately) are less likely to commit the same crime than sex offenders, sex offenders are still among the lowest for rearrest compared to other offenses, according to the bureau.

Logue said the stigma attached to sex offenders is what causes problems for the convicts. 

"When I was trying to find a place to live after I was released from prison, which you have to do or you’re arrested for failure to register, I searched everywhere for a (half-way) house that took sex offenders,” he said. "Just a few days before I was released I heard back from a house in Ohio.

"I’m from Sheffield, Ala. and I moved back there in 2009. Then, I moved back to Ohio, but if I want to even go visit my mother, who lives in the country (rural area), I have to register there if I’m going to be there for like five days. Other convicts don’t have to worry about registering. The registry isn’t a magical list.”

Not surprisingly, Logue is not in favor of any type of anti-clustering laws, and cited Jefferson County’s 2011 legislation as how laws can create problems and not solutions.
He felt the laws only hindered rehabilitation for sex offenders.

"Sex offenders should have another chance,” he said. 

A second chance will be hard to come by though. Law enforcement officials, lawmakers, neighbors and even other sex offenders were not quick to offer another shot at life.

"Why should they have another chance,” the grandmother asked. "If they were found guilty, then they’re guilty.”

Toeing the line of pedophile versus other sex offenders, Hudson, who lives at the RV park and was convicted of sodomy first degree of two females and one male under the age of 16, said people who hurt children shouldn’t be helped either.

Don, the man who isn’t but lives among them and who counts several sex offenders as his friends, said certain convicts shouldn’t be required to register, but others should never be released from prison. 

Sheriff Cochran summed up the plight of the offenders. 

"Even if you want to help them, you can’t,” he said. "No one can look like they’re helping sex offenders.”

With clusters still legal in the state of Alabama and no a solution in sight, a 6-year-old boy stays with his grandmother less than a mile away from a cluster where two sex offenders abused another 6-year-old, and Don, who’s 9-year-old daughter was killed by a pedophile, lives just feet from an offender who was convicted of abusing an 8-year-old. 

The only thing the offenders and non-offenders have in common are neither are happy about the situation.