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Special Report: Hidden Sex Offenders

There are more than 8000 registered sex offenders in Arkansas. And there are several laws designed to make it easier for law enforcement to track them and keep them away from your children. But in some cases – tougher laws may do more harm than good.
Tammy Harper knows about sex offenders all too well.

In 2003, third grade teacher Brian Floss sexually assaulted her eight-year-old daughter and several other girls at J.E. Wallace Elementary School in Fordyce.

“We need to do all that we can to protect our kids from people like this,” Harper said.

And protecting kids is why Harper strongly supports sex offender residency restrictions under Arkansas law.

A level three or four sex offender can’t live within 2000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks – or anywhere kids typically gather.

Level threes are classified as high risk offenders.

Level fours are considered sexually violent.

“Anything we can do to keep them as far away from our children as we can, I’m all for it,” Harper said..

And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t in favor or protecting children from sex offenders. But there are people who say that the 2000 foot rule is doing more harm than good.

Robert Cannon is a registered sex offender, convicted of engaging in sexual contact with a 13-year-old girl.

Originally a level two offender, or a “moderate risk,” Benton Police recently decided his crimes warrant a level three ranking.

That means Cannon may have to move.

His house is within 2000 feet of W.C. Caldwell Elementary School.

"I don't want to be forced out. I don't believe it's right,” Cannon said. “You know there's no reason for me to be forced to uproot."

And if he or any other sex offender is forced to uproot -- their options are limited.

For example, take a look at this map of Conway. The green circles represent schools or parks - places where sex offenders can't live.

The circles all have a radius of 2000 feet.

And as you can see, there isn't much of Conway without a green circle on it.

"There's these strange quirks that have come out of the law that have produced some negative consequences," Dr. Jeff Walker, UALR
Criminology Professor said.

Walker has studied sex offenders for more than a decade. Originally in favor of the 2000 feet law, he’s now against it.

"You have a state law that says you can't live near a park and you can't, but you can go to the park and so that really you know defeats the purpose." Walker said.

Walker adds that it’s so tough for offenders to find somewhere to live, a lot of them go underground and could secretly be living in your neighborhood.

"A lot of them wind up homeless or you know couch sitting,” Walker said. “They'll move from place to place to place to place because they're just hanging out with a friend for a week and that friend for a week and this friend for a week and you don't know what their residence is. You don't know where to find them if you need them."

So if the 2,000 foot rule isn’t actually keeping children safe – what’s the solution?

Walker suggests focusing on children, not sex offenders.

In other words, why not require security cameras in and around all day care centers? Or why not make an occasional sex offender safety lesson mandatory at schools?

"The bottom line is there's no right answer but some answers are better than others," Walker said.

Tammy Harper agrees – there isn’t one right answer.

"Sex predator, child molester, rapist, whatever you want to call them,” Harper said. “I think in their evil mind, I don't think there's any way that you're gonna keep them from getting to their next victim. I really don't."

So Harper admits that the 2,000 foot rule might not be perfect, but her point remains the same, as does many other Arkansans – you have to do something.
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