Portland's tolerant attitudes may be luring registered sex offenders from other states

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Patricia Bowen was convicted of sex abuse of her grandchildren in1993. Since her release from prison in 1996 she has not been accused of any sex crimes. Should she be able to shed the label of predatory sex offender?Darlene has only been here five days, but she’s already happy to talk about how much she loves Portland and how pleased she is to have moved here.

Darlene is a registered sex offender, convicted of distributing child pornography eight years ago. Released from an Oklahoma prison two Fridays ago, she moved to Oregon the following Monday.

In Oklahoma, registering with police took many hours. Darlene’s registration with Portland police took under an hour. If Darlene had stayed in Oklahoma, she would have had to re-register twice a year, and every month or two, she says, police would have come by to check on her. In Portland, once-a-year registration is enough and she is unlikely to meet up with police unless she causes them to come calling.

Darlene is temporarily living in a quiet residential neighborhood in Southeast Portland with a cousin. Eventually, she may move out to her own apartment. It’s easier here. In Oklahoma, she says, as a registered sex offender she would not be allowed to rent within 200 feet of a school or preschool.

Darlene can’t get over how helpful and kind people have been to her in Portland. “Everywhere I have been so far it has been really good people,” she says.

by: SOURCE: PPB - A chart shows the number of sex offenders registered in Portland.Darlene is unaware that she is part of a trend. According to data compiled by Portland police, Portland has more registered sex offenders per capita than any other similar-sized city in the country. It likely has more than any city in the country, but officers in the police sex offender registry detail have not run the numbers for every city.

In addition, national data shows Oregon either first or second (behind Delaware) for the number of registered sex offender residents per capita.

Nobody knows what that means. Sex offender data is notoriously unscientific. Each state maintains different criteria for determining who must register as a sex offender. In some states, crimes such as public indecency or statutory rape can result in a conviction or plea bargain that includes registration, while other states are more lenient.

So it might be possible that the high percentage of sex offenders locally is more a function of procedures and record-keeping than of increased public danger. Except for one more bit of information Portland police have observed — sex offenders in substantial numbers have been moving into Portland, and few have been moving out.

About 130 new sex offenders are moving to Portland each year from other states, and only about a dozen are moving away, according to Bridget Sickon, Portland police sex offender coordinator. And that is based on the offenders who register when they come here.

Sickon doesn’t know how many others may have moved here without notifying authorities. Thirty or more times a year, Portland police make an arrest and discover they have picked up a registered sex offender who never re-registered upon moving here, she says.

“There is an influx from other states to here,” Sickon says with certainty.

Sickon has only theories to explain the trend. She echoes Darlene in saying that Oregon isn’t as tough on sex offenders as many other states. Offenders who fail to register here are less likely to suffer severe consequences, she says.

More tolerant

Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Caroline Wong says statutory rape laws might be partially responsible for Portland’s disproportionate number of sex offenders. In Washington state, for instance, the age of consent is 16, while it is 18 in Oregon. So it’s legal for a 22-year-old man to have consensual sex with a 16-year-old in Washington, but it’s sex abuse here.

On the other hand, many registered sex offenders are homeless, and in Washington state homeless sex offenders are required to report their whereabouts to police every week, not once a year as in Oregon.

The hardship of being a registered sex offender sends most sex criminals into a downward economic spiral, experts say. Most jobs and apartments are off limits. Even publicly subsidized Section Eight housing is unavailable. In Portland, about 275 of 3,992 registered sex offenders — seven percent — are homeless. Portland has long been known as a city that attracts homeless people because of its generous social services, so that is likely increasing the local sex offender count.

“They’re getting away from all those types of things and coming to a place that’s much more tolerant of people,” Sickon says.

By 7 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, the eight chairs in the waiting room on the 13th floor of Portland police’s Central Precinct are filling up with a mix of men and one woman. All are here to register as sex offenders, either because they have recently left prison or changed addresses. Some look like they might be clients at those Old Town social service agencies, but others are well-dressed and here early because they have jobs to get to. Registration lasts until 3 p.m., but for those who get in early the wait can be less than 30 minutes.

In a way, everyone in the small waiting room is a lifer, and their conversation reflects the tremendous burden of the sex offender label. One man, convicted of rape nearly 30 years ago, says he was a pimp but not a rapist, as one of his prostitutes claimed. He’s not a danger to strangers on the street, he insists. Still, pimping is a sex offense.

Another says his sex crime conviction involving his wife wouldn’t require him to register as a sex offender in his home state of Virginia, as it does in Oregon. He’s here, he says, because his ex-wife moved here knowing that, and he wants to be close to his child.

He says Portland’s reputation for tolerance might be attracting sex offenders. Why, he asks, are some public indecency convictions enough to label someone here a sex offender for life, while thousands of riders in the annual Naked Bike Ride are tolerated with civic pride? Portland sends mixed and confusing messages about its attitudes toward sex, he says. (Technically, only second convictions for public indecency can get an offender registered.)

Another man trying to register is placed in handcuffs when the police database reveals he has an outstanding warrant on a theft charge. He is led away to the county jail.

Chaperoning students

Vi Beaty, registered sex offender program manager for the Oregon State Police, says that during the last 10 years the number of registered sex offenders in Oregon has grown from 10,508 to 18,647. She processes about 140 new registered offenders each month, most registering because they are leaving prison, but many because they have moved here.

Beaty says it’s possible that Oregon’s sex offender numbers look high because it is rare for sex criminals here to get taken off registers. In Washington state, low- risk offenders who stay out of trouble can more easily petition courts to have the label removed.

But Beaty says it is also possible that sex offenders choose to move to Oregon because they can be more anonymous here. In some states, all registered sex offenders are listed on websites available to the public.

Out of the 18,647 Oregon registered sex offenders, only 750 — those labeled as predators — are identified to the public on a website run by the Oregon State Police.

Sickon says the public attention that occasionally flares up when police alert the public about a predator moving into a neighborhood can do more harm than good. She points to a case three weeks ago, when Gordon Michael Strauss, a homeless man, moved here and claimed Northwest Ninth Avenue and Everett Street as his home.

Portland police notified principals at nearby schools about Strauss and his history of preying on teenage girls, strangers whom he would befriend and then rape at knife point. Lincoln High School scheduled self-defense workshops for girls. For two weeks, volunteers walked girl students to cars and TriMet stops.

Strauss left Portland after a few weeks, claiming he’d been chased out of town by publicity. With Strauss now Washington state’s problem, the chaperoning of Lincoln students stopped.

And that’s when Sickon began worrying even more. Her numbers show 61 registered sex offenders living within about a mile of Lincoln, in the 97205 zip code. Just a mile further away, in the Old Town/Pearl District zip code, more than 1,000 offenders reside, or say they do. But few of them show up on the public registry.

Sickon feels that after high-profile incidents, people mistakenly let down their guard. And she would make public the names and addresses of nearly all registered sex offenders.

“You’re surrounded with all kinds of people, and some of them are just as bad as Strauss,” Sickon says. “Especially in downtown Portland.”

More crimes

University of Michigan law professor J.J. Prescott thinks that expanding public notification, which some states are doing, is a mistake. He says police need registries to keep tabs on sex offenders. And public notification might prevent some first-timer sex crimes by making potential offenders such as teenage boys more aware of the consequences.

But Prescott, author of “Do Sex Offender Registries Make Us Less Safe?” says public notification increases the psychological stress on offenders who can begin to see themselves as separate from society — pariahs. And, as pariahs, he says, they are more likely to commit more crimes.

“If you’re basically starving, living in a crappy room in a hotel and not free to move about very much — maybe you have an electronic monitor — (you may think) ‘What exactly are you going to do to me if I commit another crime?’ “ Prescott says.

Deputy District Attorney Wong says she understands both views on public disclosure. A woman who has been raped might want to know where her rapist now lives, if only to avoid that neighborhood, she says. On the other hand, the parents of a 21-year-old man convicted of statutory rape for sleeping with his 15-year-old girlfriend might object to having him identified publicly as a sex offender.

“It’s all a matter of perspective,” Wong says.

Patricia Bowen certainly recognizes the social isolation to which Prescott refers. Among the small number of Portland sex offenders who merit public disclosure there is only one woman — Bowen.

Bowen accepted a plea bargain of first-degree sexual abuse in 1993 after being accused of forcing her three grandchildren to commit sex acts. She says her grandchildren, who also accused their grandfather, made up the story. She left prison in 1996.

Previously, Bowen and her husband were living something close to a middle-class life in Wallowa County, making payments on two homes and driving a 1976 baby blue Cadillac El Dorado.

That life was impossible to continue after her release from prison, when Bowen was deemed predatory and placed on the public disclosure list. She dreamed of becoming a dental assistant but can’t do that because she might come into contact with children. She has been told she also can’t work in a hospital.

She says the first job she found was making sandwiches at a Subway in Beaverton. After a week, she learned some of her co-workers were younger than 18, so she had to leave. She has worked sporadically as a temp and as a waitress. She was offered a job as a cook at a hospital but couldn’t take it. When a superior at a large supermarket learned of her status, she says she was told, “You’re not the type of people we want.”

As a result, Bowen, now 59, has earned very little money since her release from prison. She has couch-surfed, stayed in a women’s shelter and lived out of her car. Currently, she lives rent-free in a small apartment in outer Northeast through what she describes as “an amicable relationship with my landlord.” She has been on food stamps all that time.

Sometimes, Bowen waves through her apartment window at the children in a nearby apartment and they wave back. That is about as close as she gets to contact with children. She has been shunned by her family. She describes her life as empty and lonely, says she has never had any inclination to commit sex crimes on children, and her record confirms the most significant lapse she’s had since leaving prison was failing to register one year.

A bill being considered by the legislature this session would give Bowen and others like her credit for their clean records and would allow some of them to have their names removed from the registry. But it might also enlarge the disclosure list with the names of more low-level sex offenders.

“We’re tagged for life,” Bowen says of registered sex offenders on the list. “When I die, my death certificate has to be shown to police. Then I’m no longer on the registry.”

Next week: Sex offenders: How dangerous?