Thursday, November 14, 2002

Lock up sex offenders

By Paula Hook 
Denver Post - November 14, 2002

Thursday, November 14, 2002 - A proposal by a local expert to treat perpetrators of sex crimes demands attention from state legislators and city officials - and, more importantly, from every parent and citizen of Colorado.

There are an estimated 3,000 registered sex offenders living in the Denver metro area who are on probation or parole. Experts who spoke recently at the Denver Public Library believe that number may be "the tip of the iceberg." They're urging that the state build a sex-offender research and containment facility to better deal with the problems of keeping such criminals from repeat offenses.

I am a survivor of chronic child sexual abuse. I became traumatized and therefore unable to do my job as an insurance adjuster after learning that three twice-convicted sex offenders had been living on our block for 13 months without anyone in the community knowing it.

I don't understand why we don't put - and keep - sex offenders in prison; or why, in Colorado, 65 percent of them are put on probation; or why, of those incarcerated, 95 percent of them are eventually paroled.

There was no parole officer there at 2:30 a.m. when I found a man peeping in my daughter's bedroom window. We filed a police report but, of course, by the time the police arrived, the offender was long gone. But from then on, I wasn't able to sleep or go to work.

According to a 1999 report published by the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board, our community had a right to know. Prior victims of sex crimes have a right to self-determination, the document says. But we were never informed that sex offenders were moving into our neighborhood.

Though I feel the legislature made a lot of progress last session on this issue, there is a long way to go before we can rest.

All sex offenders on parole are supposed to have no contact with children, but they do - and there are not enough probation officers to keep track of them.

Sex offenders who lived on our block sat in their windows and watched our children, our comings and our goings. It gave mothers the willies. Maybe we need a class-action lawsuit by victims to get the state to listen. Maybe we need to unseat some judges who just don't get it.

The true cost of child sexual abuse is currently being shouldered by the victims and by average citizens in ways they aren't aware of. This true cost shows up in disability payments, insurance premiums, job losses and poor educational performance. The U.S. Department of Justice's report, "Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look," published in 1996, estimates the cost of child sexual abuse to each victim at between $99,000 and $125,000. In 2002 dollars, that would be closer to $125,000 and $150,000. And the report had no way to calculate the costs of chronic victimization.

Sex offenders commit an average of 44 crimes per year, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections, at an estimated cost to victims of $5.5 million per offender, per year. Put 300 sex offenders in a containment facility and you could in theory save the public some $1.65 billion - minus the $10 million per year to build and run it.

And it would be a lot cheaper than a class-action lawsuit by victims. and dealing with massive health problems and legal fees.

In addition, because we know that victims of child sexual abuse are overrepresented among drug and alcohol abusers, prostitutes, those currently incarcerated and those needing excessive health care and psychiatric care, we could expect to save money over the long term on social services.

Currently, Erik Scott O'Connell, who was naked in the bed of a 9-year-old Centennial girl, may get more time in prison for burgling the house than for attempted sexual assault on a child. And he's free on bond.
The proposal for a sex-offender research and containment facility is the only reasonable solution. Protecting children from recidivist sex offenders is far more important than building convention hotels with $200 rooms and golf courses that we can't water.

Sex offenders may have to live somewhere - but that somewhere can't be next door to children whose parents aren't informed. That risks sabotaging children before they ever get a chance.
Paula Hook is the producer of "The Burning Cradle," a video on prevention of child sexual abuse.

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