Shift scrutiny to Pierce County’s worst sex offenders

‘Sex offender” is a scary label. But it shouldn’t scare us into stupidity.

Roughly 2,400 convicted sex offenders officially live in Pierce County. By law, they must report their addresses to law enforcement, which maintains a public database of their whereabouts, and officers must theoretically pay a visit to each one of them at least once a year.

People convicted of sex crimes aren’t popular in any neighborhood, and they tend to move around a lot. Many report false addresses – a criminal offense in itself.

Doing the routine visits and verifying the addresses of 2,400 people adds up to a monumental challenge for police. As reported by The News Tribune’s Stacia Glenn earlier this month, the Sheriff’s Department and Tacoma Police Department devote a total of three detectives to the job. That divides into 800 offenders per detective. The sheriff’s detective, though, must monitor 1,300 people. That’s unrealistic.

Police commanders could put more detectives on monitoring duty. But money is tight and officers have other things to do, including tracking down murderers and solving new sex crimes. It might be smarter to revisit the law that requires those visits.

All sex offenders are not created equal. A common misconception is that they are all compulsive predators lying in wait for new victims. Some – a minority – do answer to that description. The majority are less dangerous.

In this state, released offenders are classified as Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3. Level 3s are especially spooky. They may have repeated violent offenses – perhaps forcible rape – over many years; they may have refused treatment in prison. They bear close watching.

Roughly three-quarters of the 2,400, though, are intermediate-risk Level 2 and low-risk Level 1 offenders.

A Level 2, for example, might have done treatment yet still be inclined to drink or use drugs that could lower his inhibitions. A Level 1 offender might be a first-time offender or a successful graduate of treatment. The crime might be considerably less serious than rape; exposure, for example.

The law requires that Level 2s be visited twice a year, Level 1s once a year. If that seems a bit numerically neat and arbitrary, it is.

Contrary to a widespread stereotype, “sex offenders” do not all have a high rate of re-offending. Reality is more complex. Rapists do often repeat their crimes. So do pedophiles who molest boys.

But a teenager who exposed himself while drunk may have no inclination at all to repeat the crime. An uncle who touched his niece in the wrong place might have learned his lesson. It is dumb to lump all sex offenders together as though they posed identical risks.

Nor does it make sense to try – and inevitably fail – to effectively monitor 2,400 cases with three officers. It would be smarter to shift more of the detectives’ time from lower-risk to higher-risk offenders.

Human nature being what it is, the classification of these offenders can’t be done perfectly. To designate them as 1, 2 or 3, the police evaluate individual records and circumstances, and apply established guidelines. Guidelines aren’t crystal balls. A Level 3 convict may prove harmless. A Level 1’s classification might prove a blunder.

Terapon Adhahn, the man who abducted and murdered Tacoma’s Zina Linnik in 2007, had been classified Level 1. But Adhahn was an outlier. He’s an argument for being extra-cautious with the Level 1 designation, not for trying to do too much monitoring with too few officers.

Sex crimes carry a special horror, and rightly so: They can leave psychic scars that last a lifetime. That’s why we should be smart – targeted, not scattershot – in deterring and punishing them.