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Prosecutors warn legislators about tougher sex offender laws

March 30, 2006
By: Meghan Maskery
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Legislators in Missouri and throughout the nation have pushed to keep sex offenders locked away longer with mandatory minimum sentences, but some prosecutors say that broad minimums will result in more offenders on the streets.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch has warned legislators since the beginning of the current session about going too far with efforts to crack down on sex offenders. Dozens of sex offender bills have been filed by members of both chambers.

McCulloch said the majority of these crimes involve offenders who know their victims either through family or friends. As a result, the mandatory 25-year minimums can keep people from reporting loved ones to police.

Due in part to McCulloch's lobbying, legislators have limited the 25-year minimum to three crimes when the victim is a child under the age of 12 - forcible rape, sodomy and sexual trafficking.

McCulloch does not disagree with these sentences, but one proposal recently passed by the Senate continues to cause him concern. The provision would redefine all sex with a child under the age of 12 to be forcible rape, eliminating the possibility for offenders to plea to the lesser crime of statutory rape.

McCulloch slammed the proposal calling it unconstitutional. "The Senate bill severely hinders the ability of prosecutors to gain the cooperation of the family,"

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Matt Bartle, sponsored the bill with the provision that raises McCulloch's objections. Bartle, R-Lee's Summit disagreed with claims that his bill is unconstitutional, but said new laws are often challenged in court.

"If we begin allowing the fact that a new provision will be challenged to discourage us from passing a new provision, we'd never pass any new measures."

States across the country have passed bills since the 1990s to lengthen sentences according to Blake Harrison of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Harrison, who monitors criminal justice legislation throughout the country, said last year was the biggest year for state legislatures enacting sex offender laws.

Susan Broderick, an attorney for the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, said the sweeping 25-year minimum sentences, such as those Florida passed under the "Jessica Lunsford Act" last year, can make it more difficult for prosecutors to convict offenders.

"The one size fits all approach is fine in theory, but not all cases are going to get the same result," she said.

Broderick gave the example of a child who cannot testify in court and there is no other evidence that a sex offense occurred. The offender is less likely to plea when there is no option of a shorter jail sentence and a jury is less likely to convict, she said.

"In those types of cases, some prosecutorial discretion is necessary, and sometimes a plea to less jail time - with condition of registration as a sex offender - would be a better result than a straight acquittal," Broderick said.

Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, chairman of the House committee that hears testimony on sex offender legislation, said he consulted with judges, law enforcement and attorneys about the proposals.

He said the Senate's proprosal to eliminate the possibility of statutory rape for people who have sex with a child under the age of 12 will be the main point of contention when the House and Senate work to put together a package of sex offender legislation.

"The prosecutors are the ones that have to live by the laws that we pass. The goal is to be tough on sex offenders, but leave prosecutors with the tools available to them to get as many convictions, so that we can get as many people on the registry that need to be on there," Lipke said.

Some of the other laws that have moved forward in the House and the Senate would strengthen penalties against repeat offenders and those who fail to register, add to the list of people who must be monitored electronically and keep some registered offenders off school property.

Other legislation to keep registered offenders out of some state jobs, and allow law enforcement to search the homes of sex offenders without a warrant if a child is reported missing within a three-mile radius did not move beyond discussion.