Researchers say sex offender registration and notification laws can be counterproductive for public safety by keeping registrants on the streets
By Kelsey Turner / InvestigateWest
In his 15 years housing people coming out of prison, Mike Cross has had to turn many people away.
Cross, director of Oregon City-based nonprofit organization Free on the Outside, which provides housing and recovery for formerly incarcerated individuals, knows what strings to pull to get people housed. While working in Hillsboro west of Portland, he successfully sheltered people of all criminal backgrounds.
But those he turns away often have one thing in common: Their names are on Oregon’s Sex Offender Registry.
“I got housing for guys that committed murder — easy, no problem,” said Cross, 63. “Robbery, drug dealing, identity theft, almost anything, I could find 10 beds a day. I had a hard time finding one bed a week for someone with a sex offense.”
Recent proposals in Oregon and Washington aim to increase community notification when offenders move to an area. In Oregon, a bill introduced this year would have expanded the state’s public registry to include lower-level offenders. In Washington, proposed legislation would have required public notification and meetings before the state could make plans to house high-risk offenders in a community.
But Cross, along with other advocates and service providers in the Northwest, say sex offender registration and notification laws meant to protect the public are keeping registrants on the streets, where lack of safe shelter and treatment makes them more likely to reoffend.
Proponents of notification and registration laws argue that the community has a right to know about potentially sexually violent neighbors, especially in areas with children. Oregon and Washington’s registries classify offenders by notification level — level one is lowest risk to reoffend and level three is highest risk.
“You have to level these people, you have to allow the victims to be involved,” said Oregon Sen. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, who’s sponsoring legislation to expand the state’s public registry.
While some sex offender registrants are able to find private landlords or family members to take them in, others have nowhere to go but their vehicles or the streets. While relatively rare, examples of sex offenders who are homeless arrested for sexual assault make for disturbing headlines. In 2014, a Portland offender was sentenced to prison for accusations of raping a woman as she walked home alone.
Nearly 5% of the people on Oregon’s Sex Offender Registry — about 1,500 — are homeless, according to Oregon State Police data. In Multnomah County, the rate is more than double, at 11%. Across the state border in Clark County, people on the registry experience homelessness at about 25 times the rate of the general population, according to an InvestigateWest analysis of county homelessness data. (The county’s homelessness rate is based on the 2022 Point in Time census of homeless individuals, which is widely understood to be an undercount of people experiencing homelessness.)
“This sort of ostracism and lack of opportunity winds up increasing the likelihood of somebody turning to crime,” said University of Michigan Law School Professor J.J. Prescott, who researches public safety effects of sex offender laws.
The research: Perception versus reality
Cross, himself a registered Level 1 sex offender — for having a sexual relationship with a teenager more than 30 years ago — knows firsthand how the registry keeps offenders homeless.
After serving his jail time, Cross began using methamphetamine. He couchsurfed for a while before ending up on the streets in the dead of winter — his rock bottom that became a wake-up call.
Determined to get his life back on track, he applied for an apartment and was immediately denied because of his sex offense, he said. He then found housing with a landlord willing to overlook his background after being upfront with the landlord about his conviction.
“It’s really hard to find a place to live,” Cross said. “Unless you find a program like ours, or some other people that have sex offender-friendly housing, it’s almost impossible.”
While sex offender registration and notification laws have not been shown to reduce recidivism rates, stable housing has, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For example, a 2022 study in Michigan that Prescott co-authored found lack of a fixed address is distinctly associated with a higher risk of rearrest among individuals with a sex offense conviction.
Public perception views people convicted of sex crimes as “incorrigible, largely pedophiles, irredeemable,” said Paul Solomon, executive director of Sponsors, a Eugene-based nonprofit organization that serves formerly incarcerated people. “The truth is that very few people convicted of sex offenses are pedophiles, or what we would consider predatory sex offenders.”
For instance, some teenagers end up on the registry for having sex with a partner who’s under the legal age of consent, Solomon said.
Contrary to public perception, recidivism rates for people convicted of sex crimes are lower than the average for all offenders, according to a 2019 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. The same report also found, however, that released sex offenders are more than three times as likely to be re-arrested for rape or sexual assault than other released prisoners.
Prescott, the Michigan law professor, noted that recidivism rates were low even before federal registration and notification laws were put in place in 1994.
“If we were able to establish that recidivism rates had declined in response to these laws, then we would have an argument. But that’s exactly what the evidence doesn’t show,” Prescott said.
Meanwhile, people convicted of sex offenses continue facing high barriers to getting housed.
Federal rules bar lifetime registrants from federally subsidized options like Section 8 vouchers and public housing. Restrictions on being near kids for many offenders under supervision further diminish housing options. Many homeless shelters in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation, even those that permit other criminal offenders, deny anyone convicted of a sex crime.
A 2014 Washington Sex Offender Policy Board report found cities with ordinances restricting housing for sex offenders can cause offenders to “ring” these cities’ outskirts, leaving registrants in places with less law enforcement presence, said Brad Meryhew, a Seattle criminal defense attorney who represents people accused of sexual misconduct and chairs the policy board.
In Washington, all homeless offenders — nearly 950 people — are published on the state’s public registry, no matter their notification level. Homeless offenders must check in once per week with their registering agency or risk being charged with failure to register, which can lead to more prison time.
“If there’s a public benefit to that barrier to this person rejoining our community, then tell me what it is. But what I will tell you is the researchers can’t find one,” Meryhew said. “What registration does for a person who’s homeless is set them up to go back to prison.”
Effective use of limited resources
In December, the release of Oregon’s serial “jogger” rapist Richard Gillmore from prison as a Level 1 sex offender sparked outrage among Gillmore’s victims and community members.
Gillmore spent 36 years behind bars for raping a 13-year-old girl. His low-level status means his name and address aren’t on Oregon’s public sex offender registry and neighbors aren’t notified when he moves to an area. To raise awareness of his release, protesters hung flyers in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood with a photo of Gillmore and “Be Aware” written in bold typeface.
The case, along with Oregon’s backlog of sex offender registrants waiting to get their classification levels, prompted Hayden, the Oregon senator, to sponsor legislation addressing concerns about how levels are assigned and giving victims a stronger voice in the process.
“We’re getting people like Richard Gillmore leveled at a category that isn’t public,” Hayden said. “We don’t have accountability right now on the leveling.”
The bill, which didn’t make it out of committee this session, would require the state’s online sex offender registry to include photographs, city and zip code for Level 1 and Level 2 offenders. The website currently includes information only for Level 3 offenders.
Legislation cracking down on sex offenders often arises in response to high-profile cases with “very little investigation into their likely consequences,” Prescott said. “What we find is that in states that have registries that include community notification, and if those registries are large, sex offense rates are actually higher in those states.”
Research in Wisconsin, for example, concluded extensive notification procedures don’t directly affect recidivism, finding offenders subjected to the state’s most rigorous level of notification were re-arrested for sex offenses at higher rates than those with limited notification.
Katherine Gotch, a clinical sexual offense therapist who helped write Oregon’s policy establishing the state’s risk assessment-based level system in 2013, said she understands the community’s concern in Gillmore’s case. But she’s found that prevention and treatment for people on the sex offender registry, not isolation, are the most effective tactics for protecting public safety.
“I’m not talking about harm. The victims of Gillmore have every right to be upset and to push back,” Gotch said. “I’m looking from the research stance — effective use of our limited resources.”
In Washington, protesters in Tenino, a Thurston County town of about 2,000 people, rallied against a “less restrictive alternative” housing facility last winter where the state planned to house about a half-dozen sexually violent predators — high-level offenders identified as likely to reoffend if not confined to a secure facility.
Following the outcry in Tenino and similar protests in Enumclaw, a rural town in King County, Republican King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn proposed an ordinance in May that would require conditional-use permits for less restrictive alternative housing in unincorporated King County.
The ordinance, which will be heard at the council’s Local Services and Land Use Committee in the coming weeks, would also require a community meeting before a facility’s location is proposed and would prohibit the housing from being within 500 feet of any library, park or other public place where kids are likely to congregate, expanding on state law that prohibits the facilities from being within 500 feet of schools or child-care centers.
Washington’s Sex Offender Policy Board, however, reviewed the implications of 500-foot restrictions in a 2022 report and advised against them. “Sweeping residency restrictions are not supported by research, and, in fact, can increase a false sense of safety,” the report says.
Meryhew, the board’s chair, acknowledges that offenders at high risk require special attention, but he encourages policymakers not to paint all offenders with the same brush.
“A system that focuses on the high risk and stops wasting resources on the low risk is always going to be better,” he said.
Service providers say it’s difficult to find shelter for those sex offenders who are homeless. Adam Kravitz, executive director of the nonprofit Outsiders Inn, which operates shelters out of churches in Vancouver, said that church landlords ask that no one with sex offenses be allowed in the shelters.
Kravitz understands the rule — he wouldn’t want to serve individuals with sex offenses in the same space as single women who might feel unsafe around them, he said. But the universal ban on sex offenders is frustrating at times, he added.
“Many of the folks that we run into have charges that are older than 20 years with no other charges. Those are the ones that we really want to support and help, and we can’t,” Kravitz said.
Vancouver’s homelessness response coordinator, Jamie Spinelli, has met with her counterparts in other Washington cities and counties to discuss how to house people with sex offense charges.
“There’s nothing for them here (in Vancouver),” Spinelli said. “We’re left with a larger percentage of offenders outside.”
As a woman with a young daughter, Spinelli said she understands the community’s trepidation.
“On the flip side, I also feel that perhaps we’d be better off having some set locations that folks can be at.”
Like Spinelli, Cross knows housing for sex offenders is a tough pill for the public to swallow.
In 2018, protests broke out against a men’s halfway house that Free on the Outside planned to open in Oregon City. When community members heard sex offenders would live there, neighbors began picketing City Hall, Cross recalled.
Beyond providing low-barrier housing options for offenders, Cross thinks community is the “secret sauce” that enables people convicted of sex crimes to become productive members of society.
“It’s not good to isolate and be alone and kind of wallow because of your past,” Cross said. “They need community, they need to get a job, they need to have some support.”
FEATURED IMAGE: Mike Cross stands in the kitchen of an Oregon City group home for men convicted of sex offenses. In his 15 years serving people on Oregon’s Sex Offender Registry, Cross has found supportive housing to be one of the greatest needs for registrants. (Moriah Ratner/InvestigateWest)