Replacing Missouri’s punitive and catch-all sex offender registry with a more selective list is the right way for the state to go in addressing a serious problem.
Two bills (HB-462, HB-589) that are working their way through the Missouri Legislature seek to replace the current registry, which does not give offenders in most cases an opportunity to be taken off it, with registries that would ultimately give many offenders on the list that chance.
One of the problems with the current registry is that it does not discriminate among the types of offenses that result in a person being scarred for life with the sex offender tag.
As a result, it diminishes public perception of the severity of the crimes committed by serious offenders by lumping them in with people who have committed less severe crimes.
One example of lesser crimes is the so-called “Romeo and Juliet” offender, which generally refers to older teenagers who had consensual sex with a minor, usually a younger teen. The Missouri Highway Patrol, which manages the sex offender registry, has calculated that about 631 people would immediately be removed from the list if one of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City, was signed into law.
The sex offender registry is not intended to be a blotch forever on the reputations of such people. The point of the registry is to allow government authorities — and citizens — to keep track of the residence and activities of sex offenders, including those who have completed their criminal sentences, to make it more difficult for them to repeat their crimes.
- But statistics already show that ex-sex offenders already have a very low re-offense rate and are not likely to commit another related crime, if you'd look, and the online registry is nothing more than an online hit-list for vigilantes to use to target for harassment ex-offenders, their families and even innocent people, which many examples can be seen here.
The information on the registry is available to the general public via a website maintained by the Highway Patrol. It includes the offender’s current address, place of employment, type of vehicle registered to him (an overwhelming number of offenders are hims) and the person’s criminal history.
Critics say the registry net is cast too wide, and they advocate the scalpel rather than the meat ax approach. Being listed on the registry can ruin people’s lives, making it difficult for them to get jobs, more likely to be harassed by neighbors and co-workers or to be targeted by law enforcement authorities.
An academic in the field, Wayne Logan, a professor at Florida State University law school, says there isn’t even agreement about whether registries serve as the deterrents they are intended to be.
Mr. Logan, who also has written a book about criminal registries and notification laws, was quoted in a front-page story in Monday’s Post-Dispatch by reporters Virginia Young and Stephen Deere. He said a recent study shows that while registries can serve as a deterrent, they can also promote recidivism by making life too difficult for the offender.
“They can never get out from that shadow,” Mr. Logan said.
The registry can be used to subject listed offenders to housing restrictions and parole or probation restrictions that don’t apply to others, such as being in the presence of minors, living in proximity to schools or day care centers, owning objects of interest to minors or use of the Internet.
Another reason to retool the registry is the cost of maintaining it.
Mr. Phillips, a retired highway patrolman, said his bill would keep minor offenders off the registry and would allow nearly a third of about 14,000 people currently on it to petition for removal within 20 years.
His bill has support from the Missouri Sheriffs Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri and Missouri Kids First, a statewide organization that works to prevent child abuse.
County sheriffs who support the bill say they have limited resources to track the growing list of offenders and that by cutting back on the number of those on the list, they would be better able to concentrate on dangerous offenders.
The other bill that also has made it out of the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee is sponsored by Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair. While it shares some of the same ideas for redesigning the registry, it is more far-reaching and would give all offenders a chance to petition for removal.
It also would require mental health exams and be too expensive to administer. Mr. Phillips’ bill, HB462, is the better approach.
While there seems to be legislative consensus that the sex offender registry needs work, the method of getting there has not yet been determined. With the state’s criminal code also in need of reform for many of the same reasons, it’s heartening to see that the Legislature realizes the blunt approach to crime isn’t always the best approach.