Say the words "registered sex offender" to almost anyone in Arkansas, and the thought that will likely leap to mind is "child molester" — possibly accompanied by the image of a greasy-haired pervert cruising playgrounds in a panel van with a bag of candy on the seat beside him. There's no arguing with an image like that once it sets up shop in a person's head. No use even trying.
The truth, though — as with the truth in any dark corner of society that most folks would rather not think about — is a lot more complicated.
In fact, the crimes that will land you on the registry are numerous (see sidebar on page 16) — from knowingly infecting someone with HIV to promoting prostitution to being a Peeping Tom — with many of them having nothing to do with children per se.
For example: Because Arkansas is required to enforce the sex offender restrictions placed by other states on offenders who relocate here, there were a number of female prostitutes from Louisiana — where prostitution is a registry-level offense — on the Arkansas registry a few years back, evacuees from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Thinking about pulling the classic college prank of "streaking" naked through a public place? If there happen to be any children present and you get caught, you're more than likely looking at a mandatory 15 years as a sex offender. We've been told there's at least one man on the registry because, if you can believe it, he likes to have sex with the umbrella hole of picnic tables. There's another on the registry whose only known victims are dogs.
While the oddball cases are rare, and the majority of those on the list are men who fit anyone's definition of deviant criminal, the term "sex offender" encompasses much more than "child molester."
When we spoke to the manager of the Arkansas Sex Offender Registry in early January, there were 11,268 registered sex offenders in the state of Arkansas: 10,944 men, 324 women. The total grows sometimes by three or four every day; between 800 to 1,000 names have been added every year since the registry was established by the state legislature in 1997.
Of those listed offenders, 2,067 were not yet assessed (mostly inmates, who are required to register on their way into prison if convicted of a sexual offense, but aren't formally classified until they get out). Another 1,084 were Level 1 "low risk" sex offenders. A total of 3,839 were Level 2 "moderate risk" offenders, 4,012 were Level 3 "high risk" offenders and 266 were Level 4s, which are specified by statute as "sexually violent predators." The Level 4s are mostly the ones that keep even hardened cops up at night.
From a drab office in Pine Bluff, the Arkansas Department of Correction's Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment (SOSRA) program is doing groundbreaking, internationally-recognized work delving into the minds and motivations of those convicted of sexual crimes, using a combination of technology and old-fashioned interrogation techniques to separate the one-time offenders from the human monsters at the upper end of the scale, so that they can be more accurately assigned to one of the four levels (see sidebar on page 19) that determine the depth and breadth of community notification. It's a proven system, and works well enough that law enforcement agencies all over the world have sought SOSRA's advice.
Still, even the experts in Pine Bluff will tell you that some of the well-intentioned things Arkansas does with SOSRA's numbers once they're assigned — most notably residency restrictions, which can drive offenders far from the support networks, work opportunities, and treatment options that might help them avoid committing another crime — may actually be making us less safe in the long run.