By CHUCK BARTELS
LITTLE ROCK - A House committee passed a bill Tuesday tightening restrictions on sex offenders at moderate risk of reoffending, despite testimony from prison officials who said the tougher rules could send offenders underground and make them less likely to report to local law enforcement and get treatment.
The bill would bar Level 2 sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, public park, youth center or day care facility. Currently, only Level 3 and Level 4 offenders, who are believed to be the most likely to commit more crimes, have those restrictions.
“The purpose of this bill is simply to protect our children,” said Rep. Karen Hopper, R-Mountain Home. She noted it would only apply to Level 2 offenders who were at least 18 years old and whose victims were 14 years old or younger.
Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery supported the bill, saying it would allow authorities to keep a closer eye on sex offenders who have been released from prison. He acknowledged the portion who commit more crimes is low but said that shouldn’t keep lawmakers from supporting Hopper’s bill.
“My argument would be it’s because they’re watched. They’re watched, they’re labeled, they’re put on the website. Everywhere they go people, hopefully, know who they are,” Montgomery said.
About 3,000 of Arkansas’ 10,500 sex offenders have been classified as Level 2. About half of them would be affected by the bill.
Arkansas Correction Department spokeswoman Dina Tyler said the bill could have the unintended consequence of making it harder for police to find the offenders. To back up her point, she cited studies done in three states.
“The latest research shows that residency restrictions don’t help. And in some instances, in many instances, they may actually make things worse because what they do is ... push sex offenders farther into the shadows, into the hinterlands,” Tyler said.
Restrictions have left the prison system with 1,400 inmates — sex offenders and other criminals — who can’t find a place to live even though they qualify for parole. The sex offenders alone who can’t find a residence cost the state $1 million per year, she said.
David B. Eberhard, director of the state Community Correction Department, backed up Tyler’s comments.
“This is going to adversely affect our ability to find housing” for sex offenders up for release, Eberhard said.
Little Rock attorney Jeff Rosenzweig, president of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, reminded the committee that similar bills failed in 2007 and 2009. The bill would allow Level 2 sex offenders who already own homes to stay in them even if the homes don’t meet the requirements. But Rosenzweig said offenders who aren’t homeowners would have to move.
“If you’re a renter, you’re screwed under this bill,” Rosenzweig said.
John Wesley Hall Jr., a past president of the defense lawyers’ organization, said the bill would result in more crime by discouraging sex offenders from getting supervision.
Tyler also said many small towns have no housing that isn’t within 2,000 feet of a school or a park, which would force offenders to move to bigger communities where they’re not as easily watched.
“We don’t want them in the shadows,” she said.
There was no roll call on the committee’s vote, which included a number of “no” votes. Committee Chairman Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, declared that a majority had voted in favor of a “do pass” recommendation.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
AR - Panel advances tougher Arkansas sex offender rules