JEFFERSON CITY - Earlier this month, the leader of the Senate kicked off this legislative session announcing that Missouri legislators are going to lock away the "vermin" that commit sexual offenses against children and throw away the key.
But the Senate Judiciary Chair Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, questioned whether some of the more than a dozen sex offender bills filed this session go too far.
Bartle said at a Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue that he would allow the key players affected by the bills, namely prosecuting attorneys, to look over the sex offender legislation before it gets passed out of the committee.
"We're going to ask them this question," Bartle said. "Have we gone too far in some areas, so that we've made what would otherwise be a scalpel in your hands, a hammer that you won't be able to use?"
Legislators in the Senate and House have filed a number of sex offender bills that, among other things, would raise the minimum prison sentence for several sexual offenses, keep sex offenders off school property and out of some state jobs.
"In seven years of being on the Judiciary Committee, we have never seen this many sex offender bills filed," Bartle said.
The committee will form a task force to examine the bills, including the one Bartle is sponsoring to increase the penalty for failing to register on the sex offender list. The best ideas will then be introduced to the Senate.
No one testified against the eight sex offender bills heard Monday night, but Robert McCullouch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County cautioned against increasing penalties for all sex offenses.
McCullouch said the harsher sentences could dissuade victims from reporting sexual abuse, especially in cases where the victim knows the offender, which he said is about 95 percent of the time. The proposals could also make it more difficult for juries to convict, McCullouch testified.
Another issue raised at the hearing was the inclusion of those convicted of consensual sexual offenses involving minors on the sex offender registry. The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on Jan. 10 from an attorney representing people convicted of non-violent sex offenses in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the list.
Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, made reference to a couple he met as Cass County's prosecuting attorney. The 28-year-old man was placed on the list as a result of his relationship with a 15-year-old girl. They have been married for seven years and have three children together.
"There should be some mechanism, by which that father, can extricate himself from that net," Koster said.
Bartle told Sen. Bill Alter, R-Jefferson County, who sponsored a bill that would ban sex offenders from school property, "I think we are going to see more and more bills that, like yours, have a good public policy goal. But when you start thinking about who is in the underlying list, if we apply this rule to everybody who is on that list, is it producing a grossly unfair situation?"