August 9, 2015

Mobile home park offers residence for sex offenders

8-9-15 Oklahoma:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - David Nichols drives through his trailer park on the southeast side of Oklahoma City surveying the seemingly constant buzz of activity. Men toil under the blazing summer sun, patching the leaky roofs of trailers, while others try to fix an old car parked in a makeshift garage.

Several of the trailers were donated to the park after they were beaten by tornadoes in Moore, and it shows. Broken windows and siding that bears the scars of extreme weather dot the park. Not only do many of the trailers look ramshackle, they are crammed together. Like tents in a refugee camp, there is hardly more than a few feet separating many of them, The Oklahoman ( ) reported.

The park wasn’t always this way, Nichols explains over the blaring sounds of a Christian radio station. Despite the dilapidated condition of the park, demand to live here has never been higher. The challenges are compounded by a law passed in 2012.

Nichols’ park houses a specific type of resident - one that law enforcement and lawmakers alike keep a watchful eye on: sex offenders.

That 2012 law, authored by Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, added manufactured homes to the list of living quarters where two or more sex offenders could not live together. After the law passed, Nichols was forced to evict more than 100 men living in the park.

The effects, Nichols said, were devastating for some.

“I had a guy calling me last week. His friend hung himself in these trees back here,” he said in his usual monotone as he pointed to the area immediately west of the park. “He used to live here, and then he went somewhere else and ended up homeless.”

Two other men forced out of the park and onto the streets took their lives by stepping in front of a train, he said.

An older man with thinning hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Nichols’ casual manner belies his enthusiasm for helping sex offenders re-enter society through his nonprofit agency, Hand Up Ministries. Sometimes, he feels alone on that mission.

“They put us bankrupt with that law. I had to borrow a million and a half dollars to break even,” he said. “But, at least we didn’t have to put every single guy out.”

Nichols has about 150 residents, nearly half of what it was before the law’s passage. Everyone who works at the park, whether as a mechanic or a carpenter, is a sex offender. Even the guys who work in administration.

Everyone is required to attend weekly ministry services and seek counseling. Those who can work are encouraged to do so. A monthly rate of $125 is charged to everyone living at the park. Nichols boasts that in 2009 an in-house study of the residents found a less than 1 percent recidivism rate on sexual crimes. A sign out front states no women or children are allowed inside, an effort to lower the risk for temptation.

Jeff Wendel came to live and work at Hand Up after serving eight years for rape by instrumentation and lewd or indecent proposals. He said he had no family or support system when he got out, and there were times before his release when he considered stealing and getting caught, just to get back to prison.

“There are times when the fear came in, my faith started wavering, and I’m like, ‘OK, what are my options? I don’t want to starve to death. I want to be able to sleep. I don’t want to get killed on the street. Well, I’ve got three hots and a cot here,’ ” he said.

The author of the 2012 law stands by the increased restrictions it created.

“There’s a reason why we have passed a law in Oklahoma, as numerous other states have, that (says) you cannot place numerous sex offenders within one housing unit,” Jolley said.

“I completely believe that there are legitimate needs and desires to help rehabilitate and provide these people with a second chance, and I think that’s a great thing,” he said. “It needs to be done within the constructs of the law, and (Nichols) was utilizing a loophole to get around that.”

Jolley noted that every other form of living quarters (including apartments, homes, and duplexes) were already off limits for multiple sex offenders, and for good reason.

“We closed the loophole, and he’s still in operation,” Jolley said, adding he never used the law as part of any campaign platform.

The bill’s origin is tied to Hand Up Ministries. Jolley said he was approached by Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty after a child was molested in a local movie theater by a resident at the trailer park.

When authorities searched the man’s trailer, which he shared with two other sex offenders, they found child pornography. All three men denied it was theirs, and officers could not prove the ownership.

That man, Scotty Ray Jackson, has been serving a 35-year sentence since 2010 after being convicted of indecent or lewd acts with a child stemming from the 2009 incident.

Recently, Nichols has started adding separation walls and additional bathrooms and kitchens, converting trailers into multiple domiciles with two, sometimes three apartments in some of them. But, he said, he cannot keep up with the demand for housing. Sex offenders are still ending up homeless, making them tougher to track by law enforcement. He remains hopeful the Legislature will see the need for his service and change the law.

One lawmaker worries that restrictive laws will continue to pass without consideration of negative outcomes.

“We’ve had a number of bills come along that restrict behavior for sex offenders - so much distance from a park, so much distance from a school,” said Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, on a recent visit to Hand Up. “Almost every other year we’ll have a bill like that, and it’s going to pass. There’s no way it’s going to fail.”

Wesselhoft said unfortunately many lawmakers don’t see the negative consequences of increasing laws dealing with sex offenders.

“Every session or so, somebody is going to present a bill that puts more restrictions on sex offenders, because it will pass overwhelmingly and makes them look really good as law and order people. But, you’ve got to have somebody to be able to go to the floor leader or the speaker of the house and say ‘Look, here’s what’s going to happen. I know that bill will pass, but here’s the unintended consequences.’ “ ..Source.. by GRAHAM LEE BREWER

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