Advocates Question Effectiveness, Fairness of Sex Offender Registry

Prosecutors See No Need For Change

Carla Swanson doesn't object to Arkansas' sex offender registry, but she thinks it should contain a lot fewer than the 14,000 names currently listed.

"So many on the registry are not a threat to society," Swanson said. "I'm against it being flooded with so many sex offenders" the predators can't be adequately tracked.

By The Numbers

The Registry

• 13,915: People on Arkansas’ sex offender registry.

• 2,353: Sex offenders currently incarcerated.

• 810: People on the registry who are dead.

• 485: People who have been assessed as Level 4 offenders, the most dangerous.

• 152: People who have successfully petitioned to be removed from the registry.

• 73: Percentage of people on the registry who are white men.

• 2.5: Percentage of people on the registry who are white women.

Source: Staff Report

At A Glance

Arkansas Sex Offender Levels

• Level 1: Most in this category have no prior history of sexual offending and the community can be protected with notification inside the home and to local law enforcement authorities. Approximate percentage of all offenders: 9

• Level 2: Offenders typically have a history of sexual offending where notification inside the home is insufficient. Community notification requires notice to the offender’s known victim preference and those likely to come into contact with the offender. Approximate percentage of all offenders: 43

• Level 3: Offenders typically have a history of repeat sexual offending, and/or strong antisocial, violent or predatory personality characteristics. These are people whose offense and criminal history require notification throughout the community. Approximate percentage of all offenders: 45

• Level 4: Offenders are considered sexually violent predators who have been adjudicated guilty of a sex offense or acquitted on grounds of mental disease or defect of a sex offense that makes the person likely to engage in predatory sex offenses. This indicates the highest and most visible means of community notification is required. Approximate percentage of all offenders: 4 percent

Source: Sex Offender Assessment Committee

Experts and some studies agree with Swanson, director of Arkansas Time After Time, an organization formed in 2010 to advocate for reforming the sex offender laws.

Registering sex offenders and notifying neighbors for those deemed at a higher risk to re-offend isn't necessarily bad, but there are problems, said Jeffery Walker, chairman of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's criminal justice department.

"Notification has never been known to do much except scare the crap out of people around the offenders," Walker said.

Swanson said she's run into a few state legislators who seem sympathetic to her cause, but they aren't eager to be seen advocating for looser reins on sex offenders.

"Behind closed doors they say they get it, and a few of them I've heard have friends who are on the sex offender registry," Swanson said. "There are some who are totally against me. But I really wish we could find someone who would stand up for us."

State Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, agreed, "nobody wants to look like they're pro-sex offender." He understands, however, there may be issues with the laws worth studying.

The former state legislator who led the charge to create the registry in 1997 will have none of that. Pat Flanagin, a former state representative from Forrest City, labels the law's passing a "tremendous" event.

"I think our children are better protected than they were, and people who could be victims of sex offenders have more safeguards," Flanagin said. "There's better access to information about people who committed the crimes."

By the Numbers

Brad Cazort is administrator of the repository division of the Arkansas Crime Information Center. The repository manages and maintains all criminal records and the sex offender registry. The registry had 13,915 people on it as of Aug. 18, including 810 who are dead.

The list contains 1,115 offenders with addresses in Benton and Washington counties.

Cazort oversees five workers in the registry department. It's a challenge to manage so many offenders with so few workers, Cazort said. The department hasn't added personnel in seven years, he said. Meanwhile, the registry keeps growing.

"The best I can tell you, we add about 9 percent a year. That's been pretty consistent for the last several years," he said.

Megan Kanka was 7 years old when a man who lived across the street from her New Jersey home lured her into his house, then raped and murdered her.

July 29 marked the 20th anniversary of Megan's death. Her parents said they had no idea her killer -- their neighbor -- already had two convictions for sexually assaulting young girls. New Jersey legislators moved swiftly to enact Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement to notify the public about registered sex offenders and where they live.

Other states soon followed suit. Flanagin, who served 22 years in the Legislature, said he didn't have much trouble finding support for his House Bill 1061, which became Act 989. It was called the Sex and Child Offender Registration Act of 1997.

Flanagin's interest in the sex offender registry was inspired mainly by a high-profile Arkansas case in which a man who raped a 17-year-old girl in 1984. Flanagin said the girl used to babysit his children.

"He had a record of sex crimes before that," Flanagin said. "So it was pretty clear he was a habitual type offender."

Legislators weighed the benefits of protecting children and sex-crime victims against the privacy rights of offenders, Flanagin said. The American Civil Liberties Union was involved.

Every sex offender is assigned a risk level between one and four based on a state assessment of how likely they are to commit additional sex-related crimes. In 2003, the Legislature mandated those sex offenders assessed at level three or four may not live within 2,000 feet of the property on which any elementary or secondary school or daycare facility is located. Public parks and youth centers were added to that list in 2007.

Wrong Solution

Some who are familiar with the laws say rules such as residency restrictions force offenders into rural areas where they lose the support of friends and family. Being forced to register as a sex offender for at least 15 years makes it hard to find a job or sustain a career. And while the registry alerts people to the presence of sex offenders in their neighborhood they wouldn't otherwise know, the concept of "stranger danger" is overblown, some say.

The registry has done little, if anything, to improve the sex crime rate, Walker said. Besides that, the recidivism rate among sex offenders is below 10 percent for all crimes; the recidivism rate specifically related to sex crimes is below 1 percent, Walker said.

A 2008 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice analyzed the impacts of Megan's Law in New Jersey on the overall rate of sexual offending over time, the deterrent effect on re-offending and the costs involved in implementing and enforcing the law.

The study concluded Megan's Law had no demonstrated effect in reducing sexual re-offenses. The law had no effect on the type of sexual re-offense or first-time sexual offense, nor had it reduced the number of victims involved in sexual offenses, according to the study.

Tusty ten-Bensel, an assistant professor in the university's department of criminal justice, said there's no evidence to show residency restrictions reduce crime.

"In Little Rock there's only one or two pockets where sex offenders are allowed to live," ten-Bensel said. "They can't live near schools, day cares, parks. It's hard for them to get a job and keep a job. It's hard for them to get to treatment. They can't get to the family and friends that are their support system. The smarter thing would be to have them closer to their support system."

Most people view the sex offender registry and notification system as a way to protect children from strangers, but the concept of "stranger danger" is overblown, ten-Bensel said. A 1997 Department of Justice study reported for nearly 90 percent of the youngest victims of rape -- those younger than 12 -- the offender was someone known to them.

Erin Kraner, a forensic interviewer with the Children's Advocacy Center of Benton County, said "stranger danger" hardly exists. The center provides services for sexually and physically abused children.

"Anyone in a caretaker role, those are the majority of our offenders," Kraner said. "We barely ever see cases involving a stranger."

The Watch Dog

Clifford Burton has worked full-time for the Benton County Sheriff's Office since 2009. His job since November has been to monitor about 170 sex offenders who live in unincorporated parts of Benton County.

All offenders must check in with Burton at least twice per year, on or around July 1 and Dec. 1. Level 4 offenders must check in every 90 days. Burton ensures the information he has on each offender is up to date. That includes everything from where they're living to their tattoos. Offenders also must provide not only their email addresses but the passwords to those addresses.

Burton also sends notification postcards and visits neighbors of dangerous offenders to ensure they are aware of those offenders' presence in the neighborhood. He firmly believes in the laws that apply to offenders.

"I think what we've got is working," Burton said. "The end goal is to have a safer community."

The residency restrictions make sense, he said. In fact, some offenders tell him they're grateful for the restrictions because temptations to re-offend are limited, he said.

"A lot of my offenders make a point of saying, I stay away from children because I know what's going to happen," Burton said.

He arrested a Level 3 offender last month in connection with two felony counts of failure to register as a sex offender and one count of unlawfully living near a school or day care. He said he sees those kinds of violations "over and over."

"You get some who just don't care," he said.

Burton said some offenders commit additional sex crimes, but said he couldn't provide a recidivism rate.

An Offender's View

Rome Swan, 32, appeared to be on the right track. He'd been honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. He was married. He was a graduate student at Arkansas Tech University. He had ambitions of becoming a high school teacher.

Those dreams fell apart in December 2007 when Swan was arrested and charged with Internet stalking of a child, sexual indecency with a child and enticement of a child.

He said he'd begun chatting online with someone who initially identified herself as a 19-year-old woman. It turned out it was an undercover police officer.

He admits he sent the person hundreds of pornographic pictures. The person with whom he was communicating gradually told him she was younger than she said, dropping her age from 19 to 17 to 15 to 14. He became confident the person with whom he was communicating was an undercover officer, declined an invitation to meet the person and cut off communication, he said.

"If you just looked at the wording of the charges, you would think I was a child molester. The reality is I never looked at a child or talked to a child," he said.

Swan fought the charges for more than a year, but accepted a plea agreement of 36 months in prison. His wife had left him by the time he was released from prison in October 2011. An old college friend encouraged him to move to Fayetteville, where he lives now.

Swan was assessed as a Level 2 offender.

"The first year was about stabilizing -- getting a car, finding employment," Swan said of his move. "And now the bigger issues are the ones that keep me up at night. I'm never going to be a real member of society. I'm forever going to be on the outskirts."

Swan works 40 to 60 hours per week in the restaurant business, waiting tables and bartending. Avenues of steadier employment are difficult to come by because of his sex offender status, he said. He believes the laws -- especially the ones restricting residency for Levels 3 and 4 offenders -- are unnecessarily harsh.

"The laws are designed to drive you to the fringes of communities and then drive you back to incarceration," Swan said. "I get it, nobody wants to see children hurt or raped. But there are a lot of people out there not committing sexual violence against children, and they're getting caught in the net."

Prosecutors' Views

John Threet, prosecutor for the 4th Judicial District including Washington and Madison counties, believes the sex offender laws are good. Threet said he'd be surprised if there's any real evidence behind the notion residency restrictions are an obstacle to rehabilitation.

"It's an imposition on them and certainly makes adjusting more difficult, but sometimes that happens when you make choices like committing a sex offense," Threet said.

Nathan Smith, Benton County prosecutor-elect, said residency restrictions apply only to Level 3 and Level 4 offenders.

"To get to Level 3 is a pretty hard thing to do," Smith said. "A lot are in prison or have been in prison. You have to demonstrate a certain kind of proclivity toward that kind of behavior."

The state assessment office estimates a little less than half of the offenders are level 3 or 4. Smith said he doesn't hear complaints about the rules being too strict.

"The only calls I get are, 'I can't believe this Level 2 guy doesn't have residency restrictions.' I think the way the law is currently structured, that's abundantly fair," he said.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children fully supports sex offender registries, according to Staca Shehan, director of the center's case analysis division in Alexandria, Va. The center employs analysts who assist local law enforcement agencies in tracking down noncompliant offenders.

Public notification systems, Shehan said, "allow the public to know who's living in their community, and being better informed allows them to incorporate safety planning and messaging in their families that's appropriate in a pro-active way."

Assessing Offenders

The Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment program, coordinated by the Department of Correction, is "very thorough," said administrator Sheri Flynn. The program was launched in 1999 because of the need for consistency in the assessment process and because local law enforcement agencies did not have the time or expertise to conduct individualized assessments, Flynn said.

The program has the right to virtually anything that's been written down about an offender. Staff members do face-to-face interviews. Those interviews can reveal crucial information that dramatically affect an offender's level assignment.

Flynn points to one case involving a man who'd been convicted of sexual indecency with a child. Based on that lone conviction, the man would've been classified as a low-risk offender. During the course of the assessment interview, however, the man admitted he'd gotten away with sexually assaulting hundreds of other children during his life. That admission earned him a Level 4 designation.

"Pedophiles have almost always done more than they're caught doing," Flynn said. "They're gifted at getting the child not to tell."

About one-third of Level 3 sex offenders are assigned that level by default. Offenders can default by failing to appear, failing to cooperate, or becoming aggressive during the assessment process.

Community notification is required for offenders assessed at Levels 3 and 4 and certain ones at Level 2.

Most people automatically think of a child molester when they hear the term sex offender, Flynn said. But there's a long list of target offenses for which one is required to register, and not all are related to sex.

"For example, permitting abuse of a child is a registerable offense. Sometimes it's physical abuse. There's really no reason for that person to be on a website anywhere," Flynn said.

Sometimes it's an 18-year-old who had sex with a 14- or 15-year-old. In most cases like that, the convict never goes on to re-offend, Flynn said.

A Mother's Campaign

Swanson's son was in college when his roommates caught him with child pornography on his computer and turned him in to authorities, she said. Her son ended up spending 10 months in prison. He is now a Level 2 offender, on parole and living in Russellville.

"He ended up being on TV, newspapers, lost all his friends, got kicked out of college," Swanson said. "This is a kid who never even got sent to the principal's office. So for a first-time offense, that's what I have a really hard time accepting."

"Time After Time" refers to the group's belief that sex offenders pay the price for their crimes over and over again, Swanson said. The group declares its mission as protecting kids and communities by differentiating between those truly dangerous sexual predators and those who merely made a mistake, served their sentence and are working hard to re-integrate themselves into society.

State law allows someone on the registry to petition for removal. As of Aug. 19, 152 people had petitioned to get their names off the registry successfully, according to a state official.

The law stipulates no one can be removed from the registry without a court order. Lifetime registration is required for Level 4 offenders. Others must remain registered for at least 15 years.

That's one of the rules Swanson would like to see softened.

"You have to hire a lawyer and cross your fingers just to get off the registry," Swanson said.

"We want to see if we can get it to where if you have not done any other crimes and done everything the state has asked you to do, you should be let off the registry."

NW News on 09/07/2014