JEFFERSON CITY - A package of proposals to toughen Missouri's sex offender laws passed its first round of approval by the Senate on Tuesday after several hours of debate.
Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, brought forward the bill that combines many of the sex offender laws proposed by senators.
"Today, this Senate has an opportunity to take a major step forward in dealing in a rational way with those that do harm to children," Bartle said.
Despite the bevy of sex offender laws proposed by members of both chambers, some senators voiced concerns and offered amendments before allowing the legislation to go to a vote.
Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis, criticized the hefty cost of tougher penalties although he added that he would support the bill. "We are spending more money on corrections, housing people in prisons, than we are educating people that go on from our high schools," Green said.
Bartle is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that heard testimony on the bills and started a task force earlier in the session to assemble the combined package of laws. At the time, he asked whether some of the initial bills went too far.
"The prosecutors worry that in our zeal to score political points with voters who want great sentences on those who commit sex offenses, that we make our laws so severe that they can't get a jury to convict," Bartle said Tuesday. He added that the legislators worked closely with prosecutors in choosing what to add to the bill.
A few of the initial proposals, such as prohibiting sex offenders from entering school property and out of some state jobs, did not make it into the final bill.
Earlier initiatives to lock away those convicted of many sexual offenses including first-degree statutory rape and child molestation for 25 years without parole were scrapped.
Instead, the Senate bill would impose 25 years without parole for those convicted of forcible rape, sodomy and sexual trafficking of a child under the age of 12.
One provision in the final bill that eliminates the possibility of statutory rape or sodomy in cases involving children younger than 12, assuming that it is forcible in all cases, continues to give the prosecutors some concern.
Bartle said, "We are going to pass some kind of stronger sexual predation bill, so I encourage them to get behind a reasonable proposal." He also added that stronger legislation is the "will of the people."
Besides increasing sex offender penalties, the legislation would also change who is required to register on the state's sex offender registry, which currently lists about 11,000 offenders.
Those convicted of nonsexual child abuse or a parent convicted of kidnapping his or her child would be removed. Others, including offenders who were age 21 or older when they were charged with having sex with someone less than 17-years-old, could ask to be removed after 10 years.
At least three people listed on the registry for nonsexual and statutory rape offenses charged that the registry violates their constitutional rights in a lawsuit that was heard by the Missouri Supreme Court on Jan. 10. The court has not issued its decision.
The bill now must be passed by the House before it can be sent to the governor.