, Muskogee, OK

March 20, 2013

House panel eyes sex offender penalties

Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Convicted sex offenders who fail to register with law enforcement would face a minimum of five years in prison under a bill approved by a House committee on Tuesday over the objections of opponents who say it will only make state prison overcrowding worse.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 10-3 for the bill, which already passed the Senate and now heads to the full House for consideration.

“Most people who have to register should realize that’s pretty serious,” said Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, the House sponsor of the bill. “It’s not like forgetting to pick up milk on your way home.”

Judges currently can sentence offenders to a maximum of five years in prison for failing to register, but Osborn said most receive 90 days and are released with electronic monitoring.

The bill initially would have required a minimum of 10 to 15 years in prison for failing to register, but was amended to include a minimum of five years.

Still, opponents argued the bill takes away the discretion of a judge to be more lenient with low-level sex offenders who have essentially committed a technical infraction.

“What we’re doing is wholly unnecessary,” said Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater. “We’re basically re-prosecuting them for the heinous crime that they were convicted of committing before. Let’s not forget they were already punished for that crime.”

An analysis of the bill by House researchers indicates 257 people were convicted of failure to register as a sex offender last fiscal year. Of those, 219 were sentenced to an average of 3.6 years in prison. Based on the 10-year minimum, the projected fiscal impact to the state’s prison system was about $3.6 million annually. According to the Department of Corrections, there currently are more than 1,100 delinquent sex offenders who have failed to register with authorities.

Oklahoma had the nation’s fifth highest incarceration in 2011, the most recent for which data was available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

David Nichols, the founder and president of Hand Up Ministries that helps convicted sex offenders transition back into society, said the group is relentlessly targeted by lawmakers looking to score political points and tout their “tough-on-crime” credentials. He said convicted sex offenders already are prohibited from living in most urban areas because of restrictions that include churches, daycares, schools, parks and playgrounds.

“They’re more than piling on them,” said Nichols, who has about 135 sex offenders living at a mobile home park in south Oklahoma City. “They don’t want them to have a chance of staying out of prison.

“I’ll be honest with you, I trust the politicians a lot less than these guys here.”