High-risk sex offenders face public scrutiny

Friday, February 7, 2003

Carroll County residents may soon be able to access information on high-risk registered sex offenders living in their communities, if the Arkansas Senate approves a bill passed by the House 93-0 on Tuesday.

Currently, there are approximately 30 registered sex offenders living in Carroll County, according to statistics from the Arkansas Crime Information Center in Little Rock. That number includes both low-level offenders who wouldn't be identified by the bill and high-risk offenders.

There are more low-level offenders here than those considered to be a potential danger to their communities, according to local law enforcement offices.

There are high-risk, serious offenders living in Green Forest that would meet the bill's criteria, said Police Chief John Bailey. Green Forest appears to have the most serious offenders, while Berryville has one high-risk resident and Eureka Springs has no high-risk offenders.

There is one high-risk offender living in Oak Grove, according to police sources.

Apparently, about half of the county's total registered sex offenders, including low-level offenders, live in the cities, and the other half have addresses in Carroll County outside city limits.

House Bill 1011 by Rep. Democrat Mike Creekmore would allow the names, faces and addresses of the county's most serious sex offenders to be posted on the Internet.

The most serious offenders are considered to be in the top two tiers of offenders registered by the state. They include Level Three, offenders which are considered to be at a high risk of committing another sexual offense. Level Four violators would also be posted. They are considered to be offenders that are categorized as sexually violent predators.

Anytime a sex offender is released from prison or moves to Carroll County, the sheriff's office and city police departments are notified of the offender's status and plans of where he or she will live.

They are required to register with the appropriate police agency where they plan to live, and under the House bill their addresses would become part of the public record.

Those committing what are considered to be less serious offenses, such as inappropriate touching or contact with a juvenile that doesn't involve actual sexual assault, are considered to be Levels One and Two and would not be included in the public disclosure records.

The bill now goes to the Senate, and if it is approved there it could become law Jan. 1 next year.

However, the United States Supreme Court is considering Connecticut's Internet publication program, which publishes all sexual offenders' names, not just high-risk offenders. A decision on that case could affect the state's plans if the Supreme Court strikes down the Connecticut law, perhaps by this summer.

Green Forest Police Sgt. Brad Handley said there are three high-risk offenders within the city limits. He added that his department also keeps track of offenders in the area that have county addresses.

He reported numerous low-level offenders, and said the high-risk offenders are dealt with as soon as they move into town.

"We blanket a six-block area where the offender lives, door-to-door, with flyers that contain pictures of the offender, the type of offense he committed, his description, where he works ---- basically a complete fact sheet on the offender," Handley said.

In one case, a Level Three offender's fact sheet that described his crimes (sex with underage girls) his preference of ages of victims and other information stunned the neighborhood, where Handley said one woman who had just moved to the neighborhood was "absolutely shocked" and said she wouldn't have moved there if she had known of the offender's presence.

Both Handley and Chief Bailey said they are particularly concerned about one high-risk offender who was purportedly living in a home where young girls "of his age preference" were also living.

"There wasn't much we could do about it, for now," Handley said, except to inform the Department of Human Services of the circumstances.

Berryville Police Chief David Muniz said he is in "constant" contact with the one serious offender in Berryville, an elderly man who committed his crime long ago, while under the influence of alcohol. Muniz said he notified the appropriate neighbors, and believes the registration program is working well.

Muniz said he works closely with Sheriff's Office Lt. Leighton Ballard, who monitors registered sex offenders in the county and also helps the cities.

Ballard was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment, but Sheriff Chuck Medford said Ballard keeps a tight watch on the offenders.

Medford also said he believes the proposal to put high-risk offenders' names in the public record is a good idea, and supports the measure.

Eureka Springs Police Chief Earl Hyatt said he is aware of registered sexual offenders in the Eureka Springs area, but added there are none living within the city limits of Eureka Springs.

"They're all out in the county," Hyatt said. "We get notice, as all law enforcement agencies do in the county, when a sexual offender moves here. If we learn of a sexual offender here that isn't registered with us, we'll go find him and force the issue (of registration) or arrest him," Hyatt said.

Of the registered sexual offenders he knows of, Hyatt said, none fall into the serious category that the Legislature is addressing.

The legislation would also prohibit serious sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or day-care center. The law would not apply to offenders already living near a school or day-care center if the bill clears the Senate.

Former Eureka Springs Police Chief Paula Stitz, now manager of the state's sex offender registry in Little Rock, disclosed that there are 4,319 registered sex offenders on the state's list, 1,135 of whom are considered high-risk.

Level 4 offenders, considered to be sexually violent predators, are relatively rare.

Apparently, most or all of Carroll County's high-risk offenders are in the Level 3 category. Stitz said Thursday that one of the biggest problems with sex offenders is that "they tend to move around a lot, and that is the big challenge ---- keeping track of them."

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