Sexual-offender list needs improvements

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Cape Girardeau's list of registered sex offenders is not easy to read. The 90 names and addresses accompany a list of offenses that would make anyone shudder, especially when such crimes involve children.

The list includes words like rape, abuse and molestation.

The Missouri law that requires communities to register sex offenders isn't unusual. All 50 states have passed notification statutes known as "Megan's Laws."

Named after Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a recently paroled sex offender, the law requires people convicted of a broad range of child-related crimes to register with police.

The list doesn't make children safe, but knowledge helps. A quick check of the list, which is available online, helps determine if the new neighbor, nanny and teacher are safe. It is also a valuable tool for investigators looking for suspects when a crime occurs.

Which is why it was so disturbing to learn recently that a convicted sex offender was residing in Cape Girardeau without registering with authorities.

Not only had the convicted offender not registered for a 1986 Iowa conviction for indecent exposure to a young girl, he was working as a children's gymnastics coach.

Then add in this most appalling -- and frightening -- fact to the mix: Authorities have named the unregistered offender as a suspect in the March 12 attempted abduction attempt of a Cape Girardeau Middle School student.

How did this happen? Authorities say the system isn't perfect. They have a tough time enforcing the registration law, and police admit they don't really know how many other convicted offenders are living in the county.

So what good is the law if everyone doesn't register like they're supposed to? This certainly lends credence to critics who say the Megan's Laws really are legal placebos, which make people feel safe when little or no good actually come from them.

But let's not throw the idea out just yet. We don't have all the solutions, but there are some suggestions from local authorities that would improve the process.

Instead of relying on convicted offenders to add their names to the list of sexual offenders when they move, courts could send notification to police when someone is convicted of a sex crime against a child.

Penalties for not registering could also be more severe.

And, in this information age, there must be ways to streamline computerized information between courts, local law enforcement and other counties and states.

Leaving the responsibility to the offender to register isn't working. On Cape Girardeau's list, there are 90 names. No doubt, there are more living and working here who haven't registered.

Let's find them.

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