Lawmakers seek to crack down on sex offenders
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Lawmakers seek to crack down on sex offenders

Date: March 31, 2009
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
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SJR 3

JEFFERSON CITY - The state Senate gave first found approval Tuesday to a proposed constitutional amendment that would add thousands of sex offenders to the state's registry.

The amendment would require that all sex offenders who committed their acts before Jan. 1, 1995, register with the state. Because of a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling, they do not currently have to.

If approved by the legislature, the measure would require statewide voter approval to take effect.

The Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, more commonly known as "Megan's Law," made each state enact laws requiring those who pleaded guilty to or were convicted of a sex crime to register with their local jurisdiction and inform authorities of a change in employment or residency for a period of time determined by the state.

When Megan's Law took effect Jan. 1, 1995, Missouri required lifetime registration of sex offenders. But on June 30, 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled that offenders convicted before 1995 were exempt from Megan's Law because of a provision in the state constitution prohibiting "laws retrospective in action."

The ruling also barred the state from enforcing a requirement that sex offenders move from their home if it was located within 1,000 feet of a school, so long as they lived there prior to Jan. 1, 1995.

The current bill's sponsor, Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said the Supreme Court was right in striking down the requirement that all pre-1995 offenders, about 4,800, be registered. The problem, he said Tuesday, lies with the law itself.

"The Supreme Court did the right thing. It's the language that needs to be altered," he said. "That's why you're not hearing me complain about the court case. In my mind, why this is important is, regardless of whether you committed a reportable sexual offense before 1995 or before, I think they should all be on the list."

After concerns were raised by Sens. Rita Days, D-Normandy, and Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis City, that the bill didn't include a provision for people exonerated of sex crimes to be taken off the registry, Crowell said he agreed that would be a change worth including.

"I think we should realize this goes both ways," Days said. "If people are wrongly accused of a sex crime, they can still be on this list. It can be a barrier to moving on with their life, and we have an opportunity to change that."

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, urged passing the bill, saying the state constitution currently leaves open the chance that offenders convicted now of crimes committed before 1995 could potentially find a loophole to stay off the registry.

"If we don't get this done, there are going to be rapists who we caught as a result of the DNA-collecting process that might be able to make some claim that it was inappropriate for us to find the evidence that eventually matched them up with old rape offenses," he said. "We have been able to solve hundreds of old crimes with DNA, and if we don't amend the constitution, it could put those in peril."

In each legislative session since the 2006 ruling, the Senate has passed similar bills that died before coming to a vote in the House, something Crowell attributed to the fact that only so many bills can make it through in a given year. Last year, the bill passed the House Rules Committee, but the session ended before it could come to the floor.

Bartle said the lack of vocal opposition in the Senate was a testament to the bipartisan nature and support of the legislation, adding that the bills the past two sessions were introduced by former Sen. Maida Coleman, a St. Louis Democrat. Megan's Law was also passed by the U.S. Congress when both houses were controlled by Democrats.

Crowell said that this legislation is just trying to make Megan's Law as effective as in other states.

"I'm not seeking to change what is and isn't reportable," he told the Senate. "It just seems fair that, regardless of when you did your reported sex offense, you should have to register."