Committee considers changes to sex offender registry

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By DICK ALDRICH
Missouri News Horizon

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - A Missouri House committee is considering legislation that would greatly reduce the number of persons on the state’s sex offender registry and restrict public information about those that remain.

The legislation, filed by Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, comes after hearings during the fall in several locations around Missouri, during which the House’s Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee heard hours of testimony from registered sex offenders and their families about the undue burden faced by those on the registry.

Schad told members of the committee Wednesday that inclusion on the sex offender registry does little to rehabilitate those who need the help the most.

“In short, there’s no evidence that the public is being protected by the public registry in its current configuration,” said Schad. “With our public registry, the public is not able to sort out who the true threats to society are.”

The legislation would create a graduated scale of sexual offenses for inclusion on the registry. There would be four levels of offenders and it would exempt some from public display on the sex offender website, although information on all persons convicted of sex crimes will be maintained in a database available to law enforcement.

Those convicted of more serious crimes will still be listed with their picture on the public site. But the offenders’ work and or school addresses, and a physical description of the offender’s car will no longer be included in the information available for public viewing.

“Unfettered online access to registry information facilitates, if not encourages, neighbors, employers, colleagues and others to shun and ostracize former offenders, diminishing the likelihood of their successful reintegration into the community,” said Schad.

The legislation establishes a board to oversee the operation of the registry and the movement of offenders into the proper categories. While no one in the audience at the hearing spoke against the bill and its premise, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety did have reservations about the broad option.

“Changes should be done through the court room,” said James Klahr, legislative liaison for DPS. “The courts are best equipped to deal with these cases, as opposed to an independent board.”

But Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, a criminal defense attorney argued that judges in different locations are prone to making very different decisions based on the same evidence depending on the areas of the state they serve and whether or not they are elected or appointed.

“People who are in the position to remove citizens from the registry shouldn’t have to worry about retaliation in the form of getting elected,” said Colona. “And I don’t know how else to do that other than removing the process from the judiciary.”

There are currently more than 12,000 people on Missouri’s sex offender registry. Their crimes run the gamut from rape and murder to consensual sex involving minors. Schad said previously that the number of people on Missouri’s rolls has increased dramatically in the last four years as the state tries to keep up with increasingly stringent federal guidelines.

“We’ve grown in the last four years, about 4,000 offenders on the registry,” said Schad after a hearing earlier this year. “That’s just unacceptable. We may have ruined another 4,000 lives.”

Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Tim McGrail, the administrator of the state’s sex offender registry, said the legislation makes “dramatic changes” to Missouri statutes on the sex offender registry, saying that the state would be far out of compliance with federal sex offender regulations.

McGrail told the committee that law enforcement worries about offenders from other states coming into Missouri to take advantage of standards that are less than the states where they currently reside.

“They go looking for states that are less strict as far as the sex offender registry,” said McGrail. “By passing this legislation, you’ll open the door for many offenders from other states to move to Missouri.”

The committee didn’t take a vote on the bill, giving members time to contemplate changes to the bill before taking a final vote. A vote on the bill could come as early as next Wednesday, the next scheduled meeting of the committee.