Not all sex offenders the same, advocates of changing Texas list say

Richard Calderon was a 23-year-old student teacher in 1994 when he made "the most regrettable decision in my life."

He became sexually involved with a 14-year-old female student.

He was sentenced to five years' probation for sexual assault of a child. He completed his sentence, went on to earn a master's degree, start a career in computer technology and get married.

Now 39, he believes he has earned the opportunity to put his shameful past behind him for good -- by ending his mandatory lifetime presence on the state's registry for sex offenders.

"I am not a predator," Calderon said. "I am in no way, shape or form a threat to society. I'll never be proud of the person who made that terrible decision, but I am proud of the person I have become."

Calderon is among the people advocating for changes to the state's sex offender registry, including using a more risk-based classification system and allowing offenders who are not deemed public threats the possibility of getting off the list.

The current registry has swelled to 62,000 names and is becoming too bloated to perform its purpose of protecting the public, they say.

In agreement is the Texas Council on Sex Offender Treatment, which formed a task force in 2008 to study the efficiency of the registry. Council members say the current registry treats too many offenders as equally dangerous and inundates law enforcement agencies tasked with keeping track of them.

"The registry is not really accomplishing what we wanted it to accomplish," said Liles Arnold, council chairman and a licensed professional counselor. "If we spread ourselves too thin, we are not keeping the community as safe as we like."

At a hearing in June before a state Senate committee on criminal justice, a handful of convicted sex offenders and their relatives objected to the current registry.

Among the complaints was that the system does little to differentiate between dangerous predatory rapists and young adults who showed terrible judgment in having sex with underage people.

Some offenders told of their children being ridiculed at school. Others told of difficulties finding jobs and places to live because of the public scrutiny.

Sixteen to 19 percent of families of sex offenders report harassment, according to the treatment council.

"The argument is you have some very low-risk offenders, and the ramifications are very destabilizing for them," Arnold said.

Burgeoning registries

Allison Taylor, the council's executive director, told the committee that the registry's rapid growth affects local law enforcement agencies. Fort Worth has more than 1,500 registered sex offenders; Arlington has almost 500.

Police resources are being used to track low-risk offenders, diluting the agencies' ability to monitor the dangerous ones, she said. Removing low-risk offenders from the list would not only free up officers to focus on high-risk offenders, but also better inform the public about true threats in their neighborhoods.

Some efforts to refine the registry have failed in recent years.

In the last session, Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, proposed legislation known as the "the teenage lovers bill." He said it would have given judges discretion not to place defendants who are 18 or 19 on the registry when the victims were no more than four years younger.

Despite broad support in House and Senate, Smith's bill was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Smith intends to reintroduce the measure next session, according to his office. However, as for possibly removing some offenders from the registry, the state should first focus on granting judges discretion for teenage consensual relationships before considering any other potential changes, he said in a statement. Changes to the registry can provoke public backlash. One speaker at last month's hearing who advocates for the rights of sex-crime victims accused the committee of giving too much speaking time to offenders.

Committee member Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said that public reaction to proposed changes is critical.

"The public attitude is very important," he said. "The public will not tolerate any softness or leniency regarding crimes against children involving sex and violence. Nor should they."

Politics will also play a role. After discussing allowing some offenders to seek removal from the registry, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, acknowledged at the hearing that supporting such a measure could lead to political problems.

"I'd do it because I hear the facts and that's what guides me," he said. "The political reality is you vote to take a certain category [off the registry] and that's what your opponent will put in the mailer at campaign time."

Deadline approaching

A looming federal deadline to comply with new national sex offender registration standards could force state lawmakers to decide during the next legislative session to make decisions about the registry.

States are required by July 2011 to implement the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which seeks to create uniform methods of tracking sex offenders nationwide.

But the treatment council recommended that the state not comply with the federal classification system, which determines an offender's threat level based on the title of the offense.

Plea bargains that result in convictions for lesser charges can mask the true nature of an offense, Arnold said. Using a scientifically supported risk assessment is a more accurate way of determining who poses a larger threat.

The new system would also lead to a retroactive re-tiering of sex offenders in the state registry, moving some offenders down in threat level and others up, the council reported.

Calderon said the new system would, for example, catapult him into a higher risk category. Instead of registering with police once a year, he would have to do it every three months, he said.

Noncompliance would cost Texas about $2.2 million in federal funding, Arnold said. However, the cost of enacting the federal system would likely be substantially more.

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689