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Forced out


A local ministry for sex offenders feels it’s being forced out of business due to constrictive laws, and its president has sued the city.

Tim Farley October 16th, 2013

Oklahoma City police and state lawmakers have conspired to shut down a nonprofit sex offender program that provides housing and treatment for ex-convicts, claims Hand Up Ministry President David Nichols.

Nichols, 64, filed a legal challenge last week to a state law that went into effect July 1, 2012, which prevents two or more sex offenders from living in the same place.

“They (lawmakers) made the law specifically for this ministry because I’m the only one in Oklahoma who does this,” he said. “Oklahoma law enforcement hasn’t changed much since the days of Wyatt Earp.”

When the issue was debated in a legislative committee last year, Nichols said he had to insist that lawmakers listen to his side of the story.

“After all the discussion, I was told I had one minute to say what I wanted to,” Nichols said.

For 17 years, Hand Up Ministry at 2130 SE 59th St. has provided housing and counseling for convicted sex offenders. It sits on 14.2 acres and holds 118 trailers or manufactured homes, which may house up to three men at a time. It’s contained by a security fence, and women and children are not allowed on the grounds.

However, the 2012 measure pushed more than 100 offenders from the program and onto the streets, Nichols said.

Now, the ministry has 130 empty beds that can’t be used unless he and potential residents want to risk large fines and jail time. Ministry records show 351 convicted sex offenders are homeless based on required registrations with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

“They have to give a general area where they are staying,” Nichols said. “In a lot of cases, they’re living in tents out in the woods.”

Enforcement problems
OKC Police Chief Bill Citty acknowledged laws dealing with an offender’s residency could be viewed as burdensome. “The law is restrictive; I’ll give you that. But they’re not forced into the woods. Yes, there are some who are homeless, but there are places they can live.”

Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Scott Rowland said the law “potentially could” place many convicted sex offenders on the streets. “I’ve never really looked into it,” he said.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater is one of four public safety officials named as defendants in a lawsuit that challenges the 2012 law. The others are Citty, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Oklahoma City also is named as a co-defendant.

Nichols and convicted sex offender Bernard Richard Lagrow have asked an Oklahoma County judge to impose a temporary restraining order that would prevent police from enforcing the measure. No date has been set for the hearing. Nichols said he will fill the empty beds if the restraining order is granted.

Their attorney, David Slane, citing a 2013 Oklahoma Supreme Court case, Starkey vs. Department of Corrections, argued the retroactive enforcement of the law is unconstitutional when applied to offenders convicted and sentenced prior to the law’s enactment. Lagrow was convicted of lewd molestation Oct. 16, 1997.

In its decision, the court wrote, “SORA’s (Sex Offender Registration Act) residency requirements are similar to the traditional punishment of banishment.”

Hand Up Ministry is one of the few places convicted sex offenders can live in OKC due to restrictions imposed by lawmakers.

“Sixteen percent of the city is considered green zones,” Nichols said, referring to the areas offenders are allowed to live. “In reality, the number is much lower than that because a lot of those green zones are commercial buildings or industrial parks. So, it’s really about 3 percent.”

Citty’s view
The OKC police chief admits he sought a change in the sex offender registry law, but only as it pertained to the legal definition of a dwelling unit and multi-family housing.

As previously written, law enforcement officials were puzzled by the statute’s lack of clarity, he said.

“There was a flaw, and we just wanted to define what a multifamily unit was,” Citty said.

Citty claims Hand Up Ministry was installing partitions in the mobile homes and calling each of those spaces a single unit.

“The law has not changed. The law has never allowed sex offenders to live together,” he said. Now, the law specifically describes a multiliving structure as a place with “multiple residential units that provide independent living facilities for living, sleeping, cooking, eating and sanitation within each unit.”

The bill’s proponents also argued last year that sex offenders who live alone are less likely to commit another crime.

Nichols said the opposite is true, partially based on a 2011 study by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

The report’s authors wrote, “Sex offenders recidivate less when living with other sex offenders and recidivate more when left on their own or with their families. The reasons for such an outcome relate to victim-access opportunities and a lack of peer socialization that is both positive and supportive.”

 
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