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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, March 7, 2005

Sex offenders' likelihood to repeat crimes debated

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

There was no doubt Frank Loher was a sexual predator.

Putting sex offenders on the web

The Hawai'i Criminal Justice Data Center has a registry of sex offenders at pahoehoe.ehawaii

The courts now decide which sex offenders go on the Web site. Information about 66 of the state's 2,161 registered sex offenders is now online.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that allows the state Legislature to provide greater public access to sex-offender information.

The state Department of Public Safety was so concerned he would strike again they made him go through a treatment program twice before he was released from prison.

Within months, Loher offered a distraught young woman a ride to the airport early one morning but instead took her to deserted Mapunapuna and demanded oral sex. She fought him off and escaped. Loher was later arrested for attempted sexual assault, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison as a repeat offender.

Loher's actions showed the limits of therapy for sex offenders, but he is apparently far from the norm in Hawai'i. Over the past six years, Loher is the only felony sex offender released from prison to be convicted of another felony sex crime.

As Hawai'i courts and the Legislature attempt to balance the privacy rights of sex offenders with the public's increasing demand to know where they live, newly compiled statistics challenge a perception in the Islands and across the nation that sex offenders are much more likely than other criminals to commit new crimes.

According to the Department of Public Safety, of the 746 adult felony sex offenders released from Hawai'i prisons since 1988, 22 — or 2.9 percent — have been convicted of another felony sex crime. The statistics do not cover felony sex offenders who were arrested for new sex crimes and are awaiting trial — like one man caught last summer — but they do track what many researchers consider the most dangerous sex felons.

The Hawai'i Criminal Justice Data Center has found that 5.7 percent of the state's 2,161 registered sex offenders have been convicted again of sex crimes and 21.4 percent have been convicted of other felonies. The estimate involves a much larger pool of sex offenders than the statistics on sex felons released from prison — including people who committed crimes while on probation — but the recidivism rate is not dramatically higher.

The trend in Hawai'i, which Barry Coyne, the administrator of the state's treatment program, links to effective treatment, is having an influence on state lawmakers as they decide whether to expand a state Web site that displays photographs and home and work addresses of sex offenders with court permission.

'A lot of emotion'

Seventy-two percent of Hawai'i voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that allows the Legislature to provide greater public access to information about sex offenders. State lawmakers say they want to protect the public from sexual predators, but some are conflicted about how far they should go and whether they are being driven by emotion rather than social science.

"I think there is a lot of emotion in this," said Senate Majority Leader Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. "No matter how you look at recidivism here, it's still an amazing statistic."

Rep. Sylvia Luke, D-26th (Punchbowl, Pacific Heights, Nu'uanu Valley), the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said prosecutors have yet to make a compelling argument for why the Web site should be significantly expanded.

"The question is, 'What is it we should do to speed the process up, and why?' "

Many people believe they have a right to know if sex offenders are living next door regardless of whether they pose any more risk than someone who has been involved with another kind of crime.

"I just want to know," said Kelly Rosati, a mother of two in Kaimuki and the executive director of the Hawai'i Family Forum. "Parents who are concerned about child molesters are not hysterical; they're good parents."

Kurt Spohn, a deputy attorney general, said some sex offenders are compulsive and opportunistic. Sex crimes also can cause more lasting physical and psychological trauma to victims than other types of crimes. "Would you not want to know that your daughters were walking past a sex offender's house every day?" Spohn asked.

Megan's law

Anger and revulsion over the death of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl raped and murdered by a convicted pedophile, led Congress in 1996 to require states to register and provide public notification on sex offenders or lose federal money.

Hawai'i adopted its version of the law and eventually created a Web site. But it was shut down in 2001 after the state Supreme Court ruled that it violated due-process protections because sex offenders did not get a court hearing before their information was placed on the Web site.

The Legislature established a hearing process and sex offenders started again appearing on the Web site over the past several months. The constitutional amendment authorizes the Legislature to make information publicly available without a court hearing. Right now, only 66 sex offenders are on the Web site, and prosecutors complain that the process can take months and even years.

With such strong interest by the public for more information, lawmakers are likely to do something this session, but many remain concerned.

The Lingle administration, prosecutors and police want to place detailed information on sex offenders — including home and work addresses — on the Web site. Public defenders want only the most dangerous sex offenders on the Internet and would limit the information to home and work streets instead of actual addresses to discourage potential harassment or housing and job discrimination.

A draft bill moving through the Legislature would put photographs, home addresses, work street names and ZIP codes of the most dangerous sex offenders on the Internet.

The public could get access to information on lesser offenders at the Hawai'i Criminal Justice Data Center or at police stations. Sex offenders who can convince the courts they are no longer risks could get off the Web site after 10 to 40 years, depending on their crimes.

An expert legal and social-science task force that considered different options for the Legislature found that there was no evidence nationally that public notification has an effect on sex offender recidivism. But the task force found that many states believe public notification is a useful warning to sex offenders and can help with community education.

States use several methods to notify the public, from the Internet to newspaper advertisements to fliers handed out door-to-door.

Vigilantism against sex offenders is relatively rare but notification can have unexpected consequences.

In February, according to The Associated Press, an Arkansas real-estate developer sued after learning from police fliers that a sex offender had moved into a new subdivision. The developer argues that the sex offender, his wife and their real-estate agent should have disclosed the information and claims that new home sales have slowed. The couple has countersued the developer.

Coyne, who officially supports the Lingle administration's position, still is personally concerned that releasing more home addresses of Hawai'i sex offenders on the Internet would push some underground and away from treatment.

"There doesn't seem to be any difference in recidivism," he said of the Web site.

Getting data difficult

Researchers who have studied sex offenders nationally have found that getting exact data on recidivism is difficult. Sex crimes often are not reported because of the stigma and fear among victims. Many sex offenders often commit several crimes before they are caught. And the term "sex offender" applies to a variety of criminals, from child molesters to rapists, who often have different behavioral patterns.

Canadian researchers who in 1998 analyzed the results of 61 different studies put the average sex offense recidivism rate at 13.4 percent over four to five years. Their research, which has been cited by the U.S. Department of Justice, also found that the greatest predictor of recidivism is sexual deviancy, such as having sexual interest in children.

Other studies have raised doubt about the perception that sex offenders are far more likely than other criminals to relapse — one of the main reasons given for putting their photographs and personal information on the Internet.

The Justice Department tracked 9,691 male sex offenders released from prisons in 15 states in 1994 over the next three years — a period when they are thought most likely to relapse. Researchers found that 5.3 percent were arrested for new sex crimes and were four times more likely than other offenders released to get caught for sex crimes.

Overall, though, 43 percent of sex offenders were arrested for new crimes while 68 percent of other offenders were arrested again. Criminals who were the most likely to get arrested again were robbers, burglars, car thieves and those possessing or selling stolen property.

Joseph Giovannoni, a Hawai'i sex therapist who has counseled sex offenders for more than 25 years, believes the state's Web site is based largely on fear, but he encourages sex offenders to embrace it anyway as part of their treatment.

"It has a false sense of making people feel better," he said.

Hawai'i's treatment program attempts to get sex offenders to understand the past experiences and thinking that led to their crimes and to change their deviant sexual behavior. Above all, therapists say, it forces them to empathize with their victims. Because sex offenders often are adept at lying or keeping secrets, therapists frequently use polygraph tests to monitor progress.

More finish treatment

Over the past several years, the Department of Public Safety has been increasingly successful at making sure that sex offenders paroled in Hawai'i have finished treatment, which prosecutors and public defenders believe is critical in reducing the chances for new crimes.

A decade ago, just less than half of the 24 felony sex offenders paroled in Hawai'i had completed treatment, while all but one of the 31 sex offenders paroled last year had finished treatment.

"These people need to have some hope," Giovannoni said. "They need to see that they are redeemable."

Reach Derrick DePledge at 525-8070 or ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.