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Shades of Rape

[whitespace] Sex crimes come in all shapes and sizes, but Megan's Law postings don't show it

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

A STANFORD UNIVERSITY psychiatrist thinks that evaluating the danger posed by sex offenders should not be left solely in the hands of the police. But with the releases of sex offender lists and maps, that's essentially what is happening. Under California's Megan's Law, released sex offenders are placed by police in one of two categories: high-risk, and serious. The law defines "high-risk" offenders as people who have been convicted of three violent offenses, at least one of which involved sex. All of the rest of the released sex offenders are defined simply as "serious." Their crimes can range from forcible rape and child molesting to such things as getting someone drunk to have sex with them or looking for sex partners in a public restroom. A convicted sex offender must register each year for life.

In Fremont, only one of the registered sex offenders was listed as high-risk. Of the 150 serious offenders, which ones are the most dangerous? Fremont's Megan's Law project director Captain Ron Hunt will not say.

"Well, they're all dangerous," he explains.

But Hans Steiner, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford Children's Hospital, says that the threat posed by a convicted sex offender varies widely with the type of crime they have committed and the age of the offender.

"The older criminal population tends to specialize," Steiner says in a telephone interview. He explains, for example, that there are three broad categories of rapists. "With one group, rape commonly occurs in the context of parties or dates. They get highly intoxicated, and then they can't take no for an answer." In a second group, he says, are opportunity rapists. "They don't go out with the intention of raping," Steiner explains. "But they break into a house for the purpose of burglary and find a woman there alone, and they take advantage of the situation." A third group comprises what is commonly called sexual predators, people who go out specifically for the purpose of finding a rape victim. And Steiner says that the type of offender who preys on children, a pedophile, is different from the type of offender who rapes adult women. "There are different risks with each of these types," Steiner says.

Although California includes no risk evaluation of most registered sex offenders, several states do. A recent study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that "risk assessment instruments are used in at least 10 states to systematically categorize an offender's level of risk to reoffend." In states like Washington, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and Minnesota, committees evaluate each registered offender on a case-by-case basis. In Minnesota, Washington and Rhode Island, mental health professionals are included on the evaluation team.

Steiner believes the inclusion of mental health evaluators is "exactly right."

But Roxanne Lieb, director of the Washington Public Policy group, which produced the studies, downplays the idea that assessing the risk posed by released sex offenders is all that difficult. "Mostly what you're looking at is the criminal history," she says. "A trained police officer can do as good a job at risk assessment as a trained psychiatrist." In fact, Lieb says, she could teach anyone to do the job. "Even reporters."

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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