The sponsor of the bill, Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, said that only about 5 percent of sexual offenders ever reoffend, and that many of the offenders are guilty of simply being, “young, dumb and stupid.” He said people found guilty of offenses like public urination have been put into the same shunned category as pedophiles and child rapists.
“So when we get on the website, we look and we see all these offenders living around us. It has desensitized us to who the true dangers of society are,” he said. “We want to go back to the original intent of this bill.”
House Bill 1700 would remove some offenders from the registry, such as those guilty of promoting obscenity, second- and third-degree sexual misconduct, such as exposing oneself, or furnishing pornographic materials to minors. The bill received near unanimous and overwhelmingly bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled House and now advances to the Senate.
Supporters argue the current registry creates an undue burden on some offenders, who have struggled to find jobs or faced harassment from neighbors. They also say it creates a burden on law enforcement officials, who are charged with keeping track of the offenders. About 12,000 people are on the state’s registry. The new law could cut as many as 5,000 people in its first year and 1,000 each year after, according to a study.
The changes also would allow more offenders to petition to get off the registry after 10 or 20 years from the registration date, depending on the offense. The proposed changes would broaden the pool of those who can ask for removal.
Some defense attorneys fear that while the proposed bill is an improvement, it will not do enough. As things stand now, judges rarely allow petitioners off the list, attorneys say.
“Emotions are going to win over medicine,” said Matthew Fry, a Clayton-based defense attorney. “What sex offender who can’t find a job is going to be able to pay the legal fees to get off the registry?”
One tweak to the law might help offenders struggling to find work, Schad said. The proposal would remove the offender’s work or school address, and a physical description of the offender’s vehicles. Schad said some employers are reluctant to hire sex offenders because they know the address of their business will be listed on the site.
The state sex offender registry took effect in 1995. Critics say decisions in higher courts and federal laws have made it unclear since then which types of offenses require registration and for how long.
Even some prosecutors agree that changes are needed.
“Over the years, things keep getting added and added, and it’s out of control,” said St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting attorneys.
Julie Lawson, executive director of the Crime Victim Advocacy Center of St. Louis, said it may surprise some people, but she supports the changes.
“It removes the people who probably shouldn’t be on this list,” she said. “While it may seem that we are loosening the grip, right now the system is watered down with people who are not really a threat to us.”
Zachary Wilson, development director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the group is watching the legislation but doesn’t have an official stance on it. He said that if people are coming off the list, there needs to be a way of evaluating whether the people are a threat to the community.
Ed Postawko, warrant officer for St. Louis Circuit Court and an assistant circuit attorney, considers the changes part of the registry’s evolution. He tells others that the registry is a source of information and should not be the only tool used to protect children.
“Most sex offenses are committed by relatives, friends, people who know the victim,” he said. “The best source of protections are the concerned adults in the kid’s life.”
The current bill also has evolved. A similar bill proposed last year never got a final vote. An earlier version of this year’s bill proposed putting sexual offenders in a tiered system.
Those with offenses deemed to be less serious would not have been searchable on a public website but would have been visible to law enforcement agencies. It also would have created a sexual offender classification board to evaluate and classify those required to register. But Schad said the state would not have had enough qualified mental health professionals to do the evaluations. So the earlier version was scrapped, with the current proposal still allowing for some changes.
One St. Charles man, 40, who asked not be identified, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor sexual misconduct charge in 1998, when he was 24. Under the new bill, he would be eligible to petition to get off the registry right away. He says that he cannot hold down a job and that visitation with his 14-year-old daughter has been extremely limited because of his status. The offense involved a 17-year-old girl he met through a dating service.
“Once you’re on it, it affects everything you do,” he said. “I’m always looking over my shoulder, always wondering who is going to find out, what the reaction will be, are they going to set me up for some kind of assault because I’m some sex offender. So I just keep to myself.”
Elizabeth Crisp of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This version replaces an earlier version that incorrectly reported the status of the bill in the Missouri House.