Arkansas has about 15,800 registered sex offenders -- 526 offenders for every 100,000 residents -- the second-highest total in the country based on population, recent national research shows.
The manager of the state's sex-offender registry says the numbers are misleading.
"It's not like we have 16,000 sex offenders roaming loose around Arkansas," said Paula Stitz. "It's more like 9,000."
Arkansas' rank behind only Oregon was based on analysis conducted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit clearinghouse that focuses on the prevention of child victimization and recovery for victims. Center researchers evaluated the sex-offender registries of each state and compared those tallies with state-level population numbers kept by the U.S. Census Bureau. The findings were published May 30.
Oregon had 28,119 sex offenders, or 679 offenders per 100,000 people, according to the analysis. Indiana had the lowest rate of offenders at 149 per 100,000 people.
The national average rate is 291 sex offenders for every 100,000 residents when counting all 50 states and Washington, D.C., the data show.
Using Stitz's estimate, Arkansas' rate would be roughly 302 sex offenders for every 100,000 residents, much closer to the national average.
As of Aug. 1, there are 16,049 people registered in Arkansas' sex-offender database, Stitz said. Of those, more than 3,100 are incarcerated, about 3,400 are now outside the state, and 176 offenders have been deported, she said.
Stitz also said Arkansas does a better job than most states in keeping tabs on registered offenders' addresses. Only 224 registrants did not have addresses listed in the database, as of August.
Local officials also began working with the U.S. Marshals Service this year to track down offenders who lack current addresses, Stitz said.
In Arkansas, anyone convicted of certain felony sex offenses -- such as rape, indecent exposure, stalking and child molestation -- must register in an open database posted on the Arkansas Crime Information Center's website. Detailed information, including the block where the offender lives and driver's license numbers, is public. Offender information can be found using name or address searches.
Arkansas requires more serious sex offenders to register for life. Certain offenders can apply for relief from registering after 15 years of good behavior. Minors also are shielded from registering in certain cases.
Staca Shehan, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that knowing more about sex offenders gives families, schools, nonprofits -- communities in general -- a chance "to come up with appropriate safety plans."
Shehan said the center endorses the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which sets standards for sex-offender registration and notification in the U.S.
Arkansas falls short of some standards; only 18 states fully comply with the act.
For instance, Arkansas doesn't collect enough information about the parole status of an offender and includes in its database only those convicted of a sexual offense after August 1997.
State laws say that "sex offenders pose a high risk of reoffending after release from custody" and "the privacy interest of persons adjudicated guilty of sex offenses is less important than the government's interest in public safety."
Yet, research shows that sex offenders do not have increased recidivism rates.
For example, the U.S. Department of Justice tracked the repeat-offense rate of all male sex offenders released in 15 states for three years. Only 5 percent of those offenders were arrested for committing another sex crime, the 2003 study found. Other studies conducted by a handful of states yielded similar results: Between 3.5 percent and 4 percent of sex offenders were arrested for committing additional sex offenses after their release from prison.
That's why Carla Swanson says she's petitioned lawmakers for years to scale back restrictions on sex offenders. As a mother of one, she said the cause is personal.
Swanson heads Arkansas Time After Time, a legislative advocacy group formed in 2010 that aims to "make communities safer" by differentiating between "truly dangerous repeat violent sexual predators and those who at some time in their past committed a sex-related offense, served their sentence, completed or are currently undergoing treatment, and are working hard to reintegrate into society."
Swanson wants to limit access to the registry, so it can be used only by law enforcement agencies. She also wants restrictions on where offenders can live, such as proximity to schools, to be lifted. No legislators have agreed to sponsor such a bill, she said.
"You have to be aware of your surroundings," Swanson said. "There's not a law that's going to protect your child. You have to know what your kids are doing... The current laws make life harder for sex offenders than it needs to be."
SundayMonday on 09/16/2018