Thursday, May 1, 2008

A bridge as a last resort

Seattle Times staff columnist

SNOHOMISH — The patch under the bridge is closed in by brambles. Rodent tracks crisscross in the dirt. It may be dry, but still it's not fit for human habitation.

Unless you're a sex offender, that is. The underside of the 88th Street bridge, near this river town's greenhouses and horse farms, is where state government last week assigned a released rapist to sleep.

David J. Torrence, who assaulted a 16-year-old girl in 1995, had completed his latest prison term (for failing to register as a sex offender.) He had no place to go. So officials gave him a sleeping bag and a rain poncho, then told him to stay under this bridge, 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., until further notice.

"We're not proud of it," says Mary Rehberg, parole officer for the state Department of Corrections. "We did it because this is what it has come to. Under a bridge is the best of the options we had left."

That we're now storing sex offenders under bridges is hardly the worst thing to happen in the long struggle over sex crimes. Not compared with what happened to the victims.

But it is a sign of a looming breakdown. There's got to be a better way.

Nobody wants sex offenders around. It can be infuriating to see taxes spent on their treatment or care. But putting them under bridges, like trolls? Set aside whether that's inhuman. It's about the worst outcome possible, for public safety.

Torrence was released from state prison at Monroe on April 20. He is a Level 3 — high risk for reoffending. He is not deemed so dangerous, or his crimes so serious, that he qualifies to be locked up longer.

Rehberg tried for months to find him a place to live.

He's barred by local ordinance from living in the town of Monroe (it bans all Level 2 and 3 offenders.) So she tried his relatives in another state. That state, like Monroe, rejected having him come there.

She called motels, shelters, landlords known to rent to sex offenders. All said no.

Almost any apartment building was likely to be off-limits because there would be families living there.

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That's increasingly the way it goes. Sex offenders are the new lepers. She fitted him with a GPS bracelet and drove him to the 88th Street bridge.

"At least we could check on him," she said. "We could keep trying to find him a place. I'm sorry to say it, but it was the best we had to offer."

On the fourth night, he cut off his monitor and fled. So far he hasn't been found.

Some version of this sorry story is about to happen again. Rehberg is trying, but failing, to find housing for three more sex offenders, all due out soon.

The state has got to build some monitored halfway houses for sex offenders. Like you, I don't especially want one on my block. It also strikes me as unfair to pay for housing for criminals while many taxpaying folks are hurting.

But forget about fair. This system is shot. Our government just put a Level 3 sex offender under a bridge.

I asked Rehberg: Did you get much criticism for this?

"Not as much as we get when we actually find them a place to live," she said.

Reprinted with the written permission of the author. Danny Westneat can be reached via email. The column originally appeared here.

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