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Sympathy for the devil

Police and other experts say some of our laws on sex offenders may be doing more harm than good.

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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.

On the flip side of that are the offenders themselves. It's hard to feel sympathy for a sex offender. For every offender, there's a victim — sometimes dozens, or hundreds, many of whom will be mentally scarred for life. Still, talk to a few of those on the registry and the people who care for them, and it quickly becomes clear that life as a registered sex offender is a very tough row to hoe, even for relatively low-level offenders. The general public isn't making SOSRA's fine, carefully-reasoned distinctions between Levels 1 through 4 — a sex offender is a sex offender is a sex offender to Average Joe or Jane — and the tales of those on the list that we spoke to are routinely about jobs lost, midnight moves, children mocked at school for what a father did, families made into outcasts and men happy to get any kind of work or any sort of roof over their heads.

Listen to a few of those folks, and even if you don't buy every line of every sob story, even if you despise them for their crimes, it's easy to find yourself wondering: If all sex offenders are so extraordinarily dangerous that our society believes they should be monitored constantly for decades or for the rest of their natural lives, why do we force so many of them to live among us as pariahs instead of keeping them in jail? Take enough away from a person, make him enough of a social leper, and a prison cell starts looking like a kind of mercy — which probably, come to think of it, isn't the best state of mind for a convicted criminal if you want him to keep to the straight and narrow.

***

Walk past the door of the public library meeting room where Arkansas Time After Time meets one Sunday every month, and you might think you've happened upon a friendly book club, or maybe a group of weekend gardeners marooned indoors until spring. In fact, ATAT is one of the few, if not the only, free-world sex offender support groups in Arkansas.

The participants on the Sunday we visited were mostly middle-aged, the group evenly distributed between men and women and between offenders and the people who still love them. The group was started by Little Rock's Robert Combs, who understands what it is to live as a sex offender because he is one. It's impossible to sugar-coat what Combs did to earn his spot on the registry. In December 2003, Combs was working as a civilian historian for the Army's 2nd U.S. Infantry Division in Seoul, South Korea — running a military museum, driving a Rolls Royce and spending his weekends going to embassy balls, he said — when police say he flew to North Little Rock and checked into a hotel with the goal of meeting an underage girl for sex. Police said he'd been conversing via e-mail with people he thought were a child and her mother for two months by the time he booked his flight, and that he'd previously mailed a CD containing over 100 child-porn images. As you might have guessed already, the "girl and her mother" turned out to be officers with the North Little Rock Police Department.

"I was not entrapped. I was not innocent of the crime," Combs said. "They got me for exactly what I did. I don't have any excuse other than I had cornflakes for brains. The minute they clapped those cuffs on me, the scales fell from my eyes, and I realized I was living in a very dark place."

Arrested and eventually convicted of mailing child pornography, Combs spent five years in federal prison. Released to Little Rock and later classified as a Level 3 sex offender, Combs said he wound up homeless and sleeping under the Broadway Bridge for awhile before he was able to get back on his feet. He decided to start Arkansas Time After Time, he said, after his daughter asked him what he was doing to give back to the community to help atone for what he had done.

He admits it isn't easy to be a sex offender advocate. "It's like being an advocate for Ebola," he said, without a hint of a smile. Even those in need tend to shy away from accepting ATAT's help. Several of the people in law enforcement and sex offender assessment we talked to are openly skeptical of Combs and his motives, which is perfectly understandable given what brought him to Arkansas in the first place. Still, Combs insists that the group wasn't created to try and weaken the sex offender laws or somehow make it easier for offenders to commit sex crimes. Arkansas Time After Time wants, Combs said, many of the same things people in law enforcement want: for sex offenders to get the support they need to help them reintegrate into society and never re-offend.

At ATAT's January meeting, the group mostly talked about the things that concern all of us at a very basic level: jobs, housing and safety. "Jay," a sex offender at the meeting who didn't want to use his real name, said that the group has helped him overcome a feeling of being isolated. "It helps if you have this opportunity to talk with someone or even speak in their presence with people who have gone through the same damn thing," he said. "Learning about Arkansas Time After Time is what has helped me to break out of a self-imposed shell that I've been in for a number of years."

"People are always asking me, what kind of job can I get?" Combs told the group. "I can tell you: you can get jobs in construction, [and] back-of-the-house food services. If you have a unique skill set, you can always get a job, even if you're a Level 4 sex offender. ... If somebody says 'Kentucky Fried Chicken is hiring,' we'll spread that word out. We share information about where people can live, what mobile home parks are accessible, which apartments will rent to a person on the registry, and just share positive things as well as the struggle we all share."

It's hard to imagine somebody getting excited over the prospect of a part-time job at KFC or living in a trailer park, but for a lot of the offenders on the list, that's the best they can hope for. Many are fired as soon as an employer gets wind of their status. Current laws forbid Level 3 and 4 sex offenders from working in any job that might bring them into contact with children, and from living closer than 2,000 feet from any public or private school, daycare, public park or youth center. That's getting close to a half-mile, and when you start drawing a 2,000-foot circle around every school, park and daycare in most municipal areas, the circles quickly overlap. That can force offenders into rural areas, sketchier neighborhoods or even homelessness, often with no access to public transportation and treatment, and more limited access to employment. Combs said the group's primary goal is to rescind the residency restrictions. He said he'd also like to see the sex offender registry made accessible only by law enforcement.

"We have two goals: to make communities safer and to help reduce recidivism," Combs said. "We feel that if someone serves their time in prison and gets out, they have to serve their time again — with residency restrictions, with social pariah status. If you can't find housing, you can't find employment, and you don't have the support of your community and your family, you're probably going to go back to prison. That doesn't help anybody."

***

If you're a sex offender who hasn't been caught yet, SOSRA program director Sheri Flynn is probably the last person in the world you'd ever want to find yourself in a room with. From a beige government office suite in the back of what appears to be a repurposed shopping center just off the interstate in Pine Bluff, Flynn and a team of seven interviewers evaluate and classify every person in the state convicted of one of the "target offenses" requiring placement on the sex offender registry (see page 16). By the time you get to Flynn's door, you're going on the registry whether you like it or not. The only question is where.

"I think the thing to say right off the bat is: Arkansas is doing it right," Flynn said. "For once, we're not fighting Mississippi for the bottom spot. We're actually doing it right, and more and more states are starting to do assessments the way we do it."

Asked why sex offenders are uniquely dangerous enough to require a public registry and community notification when those released after serving time for other serious crimes such as murder don't, Flynn said the reasons are two-fold. First, she said, with the exception of certain crimes like serial murder or gang-related murder, those who commit homicide generally don't have a compulsion to commit murder, or go out looking for someone to kill at random. Many sex offenders, on the other hand, have just that sort of compulsion: to find and re-offend on other victims as many times as they can until they are stopped. In addition, Flynn said the often long-term psychological trauma a sex offender can inflict on each new victim must be taken into account, and justifies law enforcement taking extreme measures to keep the public informed.

"The damage that they do is lifelong damage, and sometimes ends in death," she said. "Because it's a compulsive behavior for certain small groups of these people who don't ever stop, and do it repeatedly, people need to know about them."

While many states classify sex offenders by the offense the person was convicted of, by the number of times they've been charged with a sexual offense, or by using a questionnaire — an "actuarial instrument" that seeks to determine the likelihood they will re-offend based on their answers to specific questions about victim preference, victim gender, the age they began offending and the like — SOSRA has been a trail-blazer in the use of an individualized assessment approach, utilizing lengthy interviews, multiple actuarial instruments and computerized lie detection to root out sex offenders' hidden sexual compulsions — deviances that aren't found on a rap sheet and behaviors that many offenders have never revealed to anyone other than their victims. It takes longer, but Flynn believes the results paint a much fuller picture of each offender, which can lead to better strategies for keeping the public safe. Their methods are revolutionary enough that Flynn and other members of SOSRA have made presentations before international conferences on sex offenders, and are asked to consult on cases in other states. A paper Flynn co-authored is soon to be published in the prestigious journal "Law and Human Behavior" — a once-in-a-lifetime honor for most any researcher in the field.

To show the wisdom of individualized assessment, Flynn cites a case she uses in a Power Point presentation she's delivered all over the country: A man who was convicted of sexual indecency with a child came in to SOSRA to be evaluated. Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, the federal law that ranks sex offenders largely based on the crime they were convicted of, Flynn said the man would have been a Tier 1 "least serious" offender, and a "low risk" offender in most states that use only an actuarial instrument. During an extensive interview with SOSRA, however, the man began to disclose many other sex offenses in what Flynn called a "detached, matter-of-fact manner."

"When you start seeing detached, matter-of-fact manner, where this is not a big deal for him," Flynn said, "you may be looking at a psychopath ... somebody with no conscience. They have no remorse."

By following that red flag down some very dark alleyways, Flynn and her colleagues were eventually able to get the man to admit to a host of sexual crimes: that he'd molested at least 40 children of both sexes; that he knew it was at least that many because he kept a list of their names; that he was particularly attracted to "vulnerability and innocence," and used that to exploit his victims; that he started molesting other children at age 7 and never stopped.

"This is a guy who is a true pedophile, who can walk up to a daycare center or school yard, and pick out the one he can offend on," Flynn said. "In the Arkansas system, he's a Level 4. If we'd just gone from what we knew from the title of his conviction, he would have been a Level 1. So you see the importance of doing that individualized assessment."

While there's undoubtedly some high fives at SOSRA when they smoke out a "true pedophile" so the public can better see him coming, Flynn said the goal of SOSRA is to do an accurate assessment so the appropriate level of notification can be made. "We're not focused on trying to get everybody to admit this kind of stuff," she said. "We really want to know the truth, and if there isn't anything to know, we're not going to assign one of these levels that says everybody has to be notified."

The process of assessment probably couldn't go on without some kind of stick to force offenders to participate. Those who don't show up for two consecutive assessment appointments, who appear for assessment impaired by drugs or alcohol, who refuse to cooperate with the process or who are aggressive or violent during the assessment default to Level 3. All offenders can apply for reassessment after five years. Every assessment is reviewed by an attorney. If that attorney questions the level status, it is then reviewed by the Sex Offender Assessment Committee, a nine-member board appointed by the governor. All Level 4 classifications must be approved by that board.

Flynn said she does training seminars constantly to try and educate the public about how the sex-offender levels are assigned and the differences between them. "If they're not in that higher category," she said, "if they're not one of these [high level offenders], you don't necessarily have to be as worried about them."

She notes that all the notification in the world will never beat an attentive parent at keeping a child safe, a message she said she's been telling reporters for 12 years, but which she's never seen in print. "No amount of community notification, no assessment, no sex offender registration is ever going to take the place of good parenting or good child care practices," she said. "You can't legislate good parenting. ... If you've got somebody spending time with your kids, you need to know who they are and what their background is."

Flynn and several others who think a lot about the issue have deep reservations about residency restrictions. The sex-offender levels are designed to keep the community safe through notification, she said, and not to determine where an offender can reside. Flynn did her master's thesis on residency restrictions, and said there's evidence to suggest they might cause more offenders to re-offend.

"There's just not any indication that this is working, and it may be doing more harm than good," Flynn said. "It may be creating worse offenders. They can't work, because they can't live near a job. They can't get treatment. And we know that when they have free time on their hands, that's not a good thing. We're pushing them outside the support system. There may be a better way to do it."

Flynn believes that better way may be an exclusion zone approach — tailored to each offender, his crimes, and his victim preference — which dictates not where an offender can sleep, but where he's forbidden to go while awake.

"It makes more sense to me to have child safety zones," she said. "Some states are going to that, where anyone with an offense against a child can't be unsupervised in a park or near a school or daycare. You see the difference? It's not based on where they live. They can't be in those areas with access to the victims that are their interest." The state is already taking some steps in this direction. During the last legislative session, a law was passed that makes it a class D felony for Level 3 and 4 offenders to visit public pools and water parks.

Dr. Jeffery Walker, chair of the Criminal Justice Department at UALR, agrees that residency restrictions might be making sex offenders more likely to commit another crime. Walker, who has done extensive research into the behavior of sex offenders, said the laws concerning them are largely being created by those who haven't thought much about the problem, but who know it's easy to score points with constituents by writing laws that appear to more closely control sex offenders.

"This would be tantamount to making a law that says you have to have your brakes changed, by law, every 1,000 miles," Walker said. "You'd go to the mechanics, and they'd say: 'Why would you change your brakes every 1,000 miles? We know what we're doing, and they don't wear out like that.' The people who are not thinking about it and it's not their field and it's not their area are creating the rules, against the better judgment" of those who've studied the issue.

While residency restrictions for sex offenders were probably well-intentioned and might have seemed like a good idea at the time they were created, Walker said, the latest science shows they just don't work. Because legislation about sex offenses is popular, however, the restrictions have grown and grown. In addition to pushing offenders into rural or low-rent areas where they have no access to treatment and possibly have access to drugs and other illegal behavior, Walker points out that residency restrictions can actually lead to Level 3 and 4 offenders — those judged by SOSRA to be at the highest risk for re-offense — being less closely monitored by authorities rather than more.

Hypothetically, he suggests a child molester who gets out of jail, only to realize there's nowhere he can live in his city where he's outside the 2,000-foot zone around every daycare, park and school, could end up homeless. "So what do they put as their address when they go to check in [with police]? 'Don't have an address.' So if something pops up, and the police need to get hold of them, they can't. They're effectively less controlled and observed than if he didn't have the residency restrictions and you knew where they were."

Like Flynn, Walker notes that residency restrictions apply only to where an offender sleeps, not where he can go while awake. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in criminal justice to know that an offender might leave home to find a victim.

"You're known," Walker said. "If I walk across the street and grab somebody and anybody sees me, they'll be like: 'That's the guy that lives in that house over there.' Whereas, if you're in another part of town or another town, they'll say: 'It was some dude, who was between 5'5" and 6'5", between 150 and 550 pounds."

Walker said that while sex offender sentencing and the assessment process works fairly well in Arkansas (though he said he'd like to see more flexibility in the sex offender levels to allow SOSRA to adjust them in response to current science), the laws on the books regarding sex offenders once they're set free are "arcane and disjointed" and need to be rewritten.

"Let's be realistic about it all," he said. "Go back in and rewrite it based on the current science. There's lot of good science out there, and it would not take very long at all to put together a short legislative task force and say: 'OK, what do we know and how long would it take us to do this?' "

Paula Stitz, manager of the Arkansas sex offender registry, said the biggest challenge in tracking sex offenders is just keeping up with their address changes. They tend to move a lot. "As soon as community notification is done, neighbors find out, employers find out, they lose jobs, the neighbors start looking at them funny, so they move," she said. "We can have one who registers in one place one week and another the next week."

Death isn't even an escape from the registry for some. At last count, there were 561 dead offenders on the registry. Stitz said the deceased are kept on the publicly accessible list at the request of victims' rights groups, who wanted victims who've lost track of their rapists or molesters to be able to find closure if they ever go looking online.

While Stitz is a true believer in the registry and its value in protecting the public, she said there are probably some Level 1 offenders who are simply a waste of time and money to keep track of. If it is determined that an offender will likely never re-offend, she'd like to see prosecutors and judges have more leeway to let low-level offenders off the list before the mandatory 15 years is up. "The solution, in my view, is to let that deputy prosecutor and the judge and the defense attorney look at the circumstances of that," she said. "If they figure out this is a one-time incident, the kid needs his knuckles rapped, but I don't think he needs to be on the sex offender registry for 15 years."

She notes that those sex offenders who don't need to be on the list long term are a very small slice of the overall pie. "The vast majority of these guys are criminals," she said. "You look at their criminal histories, and it's just one thing after another. These are not nice people. These are people who have served long terms in prison, who have done horrendous acts on adults and children, and are not sympathetic characters. ... These are people who have committed horrible acts, and who minimize what they've done, and who regularly and routinely try their best to fall through the cracks."

A former cop, Stitz said one of the first sex offender cases she worked was the rape of an infant, a crime which the perpetrator pleaded down to the point that he received only four months in jail. Though Stitz said she was outraged at that as a rookie officer, she's since come to understand why many sex offenders can often strike plea bargains that lead to light sentences: Children often make for unreliable witnesses, can't testify at all, or have parents who don't want to put them through the trauma of a trial.

"When you're talking 2- or 3-year-old kids, you can't put them on the stand," she said. Even 7, 8, 9-year-olds can't testify. "If you've got a teen-ager who has been traumatized over a long period of time by a parent or an uncle or someone close to them, and you've got a defense attorney hammering at them, when you tell parents: 'Well, he wants to take a plea for sexual assault 4th degree, a misdemeanor,' they grab at stuff like that because they don't want to put their child through it."

Stitz is a big believer in community notification as a tool to keep the public more safe. She recalls a case in North Little Rock some years back in which a sex offender living in a hotel snatched a small boy from the playground and brought him back to the hotel. He and the boy were seen by a security guard who'd received a community notification flyer on the offender. He called police, and they wound up catching the man in a bathroom with the boy.

Stitz would like to see the creation of a cohesive legislative task force that could address some of the issues in the law. The state had a task force at one time, Stitz said, but when the legislator who'd created it was term-limited out of office, it was disbanded. "I'm talking about the ground troops," she said. "Parole and probation, the police officers that actually work the registry in their communities, somebody from the attorney general's office, our office, the Department of Corrections, the assessment folks. Everybody that we could think of that were stakeholders in the sex offender registry business. We had a defense attorney, we had a victim's advocate, we had a psychologist who specialized in treating sex offenders."

Though she'd like to revisit some parts of current law regarding sex offenders, Stitz believes the registry and community notification work well to keep the public safe. Sex offenses, she said, can only continue "in the dark."

"The less you know about [sex offenders], the more they can commit their crimes," she said. "The one thing they haven't liked is this bright light of publicity shone on them. Before, it was much easier to fool the public. You could be the good ol' grandpa next door, or the teacher, or the professor or the police officer or the Sunday School teacher. You could be any of those people and you could hide your crime. The one thing that the sex offender registry has done is hamstring these guys from continuing their behavior."

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