Clause and Effect: Norman Helps Sex Offenders by Not Making Them Move
For victims, life after a sexual assault is often filled with shame, fear and frustrating legal battles. For perpetrators, life after conviction is complicated, especially after they finish serving time in prison. According to Oklahoma’s Sex Offenders Registration Act, those convicted of a sexual felony cannot live within a 2,000-foot radius of a school. And, as straightforward as that sounds, it might be significantly easier said than done.
“Well, we've got schools everywhere, plus the University of Oklahoma and that counts too,” said Norman Police Department Captain John Easley. “What you see is the law says, ‘You cannot live there.’ but that’s a little hazy area in the enforcement and prosecution of these folks. And what it’s come down to is somebody has described it as the grandfather clause.”
This “grandfather clause” is a caveat added to the law (57 O.S. § 590) and a general understanding between law enforcement officials that makes it possible for sex offenders to remain inside that prohibited radius if they’re convicted while living there.
“In other words, if you offend in Norman, if you’re convicted in Norman (of a sex offense that requires registration) and you have property here in town, you don’t have to sell and leave that property," explained Easley. "You can just register and stay with that property. Now if you sell the property, or dispose of it in some way, then you are stuck with the situation where now the rule kicks in on you because the grandfather clause no longer operates.”
The City of Norman lists 83 registered sex offenders within its limits. And there’s a common assumption that at least some of those were men who were simply caught urinating in public. But Captain Easley explains that this is not the case. He said that if someone really is just urinating in public, they’ll usually only be charged with a misdemeanor, which would not require registration as a sex offender.
“[If] it’s done with malicious intent or prurient interest in mind…that’s where the state law kicks in,” Easley said.
The state law he refers to is the Sex Offender Registration Act. And while that’s generally not controversial, the “grandfather clause” is.
However, according to Captain Easley, there are two main reasons why Norman allows for this exemption. First, the state of Oklahoma is reluctant to take property from property owners. And second, there are 24 schools that are part of the Norman Public School District, not including the private schools and day care centers that also count in the law’s enforcement. So it can be difficult to find land where offenders can live while following the original law, unless that land is out by Lake Thunderbird.
University of Oklahoma Assistant Professor of Sociology Meredith Worthen teaches a course on sexual deviance. She says that while this may sound alarming, she sees the grandfather clause as a more practical way to deal with sex offenders.
“Whenever we think of a sex offender,” said Worthen. “We think of an offender that offends against children. Even though there’s lots of types of sex offenders, that’s the first image that comes to our mind. And what do we want to do? Protect the children. Of course.”
Not all sex offenders are pedophiles. Some are charged with statutory rape, incest, or sexual battery. Put simply, many sex offenders are not direct threats to children, and Worthen says this clause may be more beneficial to towns than it is harmful.
“In the state of Florida, there’s kind of this area under a bridge where all of these sex offenders live because there’s nowhere in the county where they’re allowed to live based on their restrictions. And that is highly problematic because it creates this group of mostly men living without any sort of access to anything that we would think of as a safe space.”
Worthen cites the example of Miami, where there is no exemption from residency restrictions for sex offenders. Due to overlapping city and state laws, these men have been relegated to living in a tent city beside the Julia Tuttle Causeway, with no sanitation and tight restrictions on when they can leave.
“They sit around and they talk about how mad they are and how this is a bad situation.” said Worthen. “So, those guys are not considering how they want to be good men, how they want to rejoin the population and, you know, do pro-social things because they’re living under a bridge because their city said “too bad.”
In this clip from ABC News, a man living under that bridge in Florida, Homer Barkley, reflects on his living situation.
"I done went to prison and did all this time. Why am I still here? Why am I still being punished? All I want is my life back. I deserve a second chance at life,”Barkley said.
Worthen says that by permitting the offenders to remain in their homes after serving time, it encourages assimilation rather than recidivism.
“Allowing for kind of thinking about things differently can move away from creating these kinds of hubs of spaces where criminals live in,” said Worthen.