Mo.'s sex offender registry too far-reaching, some say

Monday, November 5, 2012

As a newly elected sheriff in 1995, John Jordan liked the idea that was then in its infancy -- a public registry of the "worst of the worst" sex offenders. By Jordan's estimation, such a public listing of convicted rapists, child molesters and perpetrators of other violent sexual offenses could only help potential victims and their families stand guard against attack of what seemed to be a growing number of would-be predators.

In the years since, however, Jordan says he has watched as the list has been bloated by perhaps well-meaning lawmakers who continue to expand the registry to include some who, while technically lawbreakers, don't belong among the state's harshest sex offenders.

"There are so many people who get on the list anymore, it's hard to see who the real predators are," Jordan said. "When you look at these laws, it's something to be concerned with. There are people who definitely deserve to be on these lists and those who probably don't need to be there."

That's why this spring, Jordan, now nearly two decades on the job, stood in front of Missouri legislators who were considering a bill to drastically cut back on the state's offender registry rolls. In what he described as an informational discussion, he presented testimony to House members who were about to vote.

As proposed, the legislation would eliminate mandatory registration for some offenses, such as promoting obscenity, as well as outline a course for some offenders to have their names removed from the list early based on the severity of the crime. Missouri has more than 13,000 people on its sex offender registry, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, with crimes running the gamut from rape to consensual sex with minors.

The House, as it did in 2010, again passed the bill by a wide margin largely with bipartisan support. But the bill, as before, stalled in the Senate. This year's rejection, however, came with a concession -- the creation of the Joint Committee on the Missouri Criminal Code charged with making recommendations on which of the offenses that require registration should be removed. The law directs the committee to "evaluate removal of offenses from the sexual offender registry which do not jeopardize public safety or do not contribute to the public's assessment of risk associated with offenders."

The committee is to present recommendations to Missouri lawmakers by the end of the year.

With the committee already holding hearings to gauge public sentiment, some locally welcomed the news that the laws could soon be changed.

"When you have that many offenses, the list becomes meaningless," said Gordon Glaus, a Cape Girardeau defense lawyer who has represented a number of accused sex offenders. "It's gone overboard. But these are popular laws for legislators to run on. The alleged evil sex offender is a great punching bag for politicians."

Any future bill, as last year's did, would also likely allow for sex offenders to petition the court to remove their name from the registry after 10 years for most offenses and 20 years for cases that are more severe. Nearly all of the supporters of scaling back the registry agree that any offenders who are a danger to children should stay on the list.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle, whose office works daily to prosecute such offenders, thinks that the laws have already been fine tuned.

"The legislators have gone back and forth and tinkered with it every way they could," Swingle said. "What we're left with is a law that is working pretty much the way it was intended."

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime. Local headlines bolster the claim, perhaps most notably locally with the case of Jeffrey Dean Shelton, the accused kidnapper and convicted sex offender who has been charged in the highly-publicized abduction of a 5-year-old girl from Poplar Bluff, Mo., and another girl from Qulin, Mo.

Law enforcement often uses sex offender lists when such a kidnapping occurs, Swingle said. They can quickly locate possible suspects based on the lists and addresses and perhaps save time that can save lives. Not to mention, he said, that the online registry that is maintained by each county sheriff's office has been wildly popular among parents.

"This was one of those laws where I really underestimated how valuable it would be and how interested the public would be in it," Swingle said. "There for awhile, there were a lot of loopholes, but I think they have gotten it where it needs to be."

If Missouri pushes back against the mandate with looser restrictions, several Southeast Missouri counties could reverse the trend of swelling registry offenders. Cape Girardeau County, for example, has seen its number of registered offenders grow each year and today has 154 registered sex offenders.

The local list is made up of offenders, from ages 20 to 70, who have registered for offenses that range from rape to consensual sex between minors. Of that number, 22 are not in compliance with registry requirements, meaning they have absconded, failed to register or didn't re-register following a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that reversed a previous ruling. The Missouri Supreme Court, which had earlier said that Missouri cannot require offenders to register if they were convicted before the law was passed, ruled in 2009 that the federally mandated registration requirement applies to individuals who committed a sex offense before July 20, 2006.

Several of those who had their names taken off the registry have yet to re-register.

Other counties have seen numbers grow, too. Bollinger County, as of Sunday, had 45 sex offenders registered, two who are out of compliance and three who had been previously exempt but were ordered to re-register, while all of Perry County's 44 registered offenders were registered. Southeast Missouri State University, whose students have recently been exposed to a flasher, has seven registered.

Scott County has a total of 125 registered sex offenders, including three women, and six of those are currently out of compliance.


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