JEFFERSON CITY — Sex offenders are in the cross hairs of the General Assembly this year with numerous pieces of legislation coming from both parties that aim to restrict the rights of people on the Missouri Sex Offender Registry.
The centerpiece of these efforts is a bipartisan joint resolution proposed in the Senate that would make the registry retroactive, which would force sex offenders who committed crimes before the enactment of the registry to sign up. If the legislation passes, voters would vote on the issue in November.
Aims of the resolution have widened following a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that upheld a previous court decision. A Missouri law that restricted sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school was ruled unconstitutional because of attempts to apply the law retroactively.
The resolution is being co-sponsored by Sens. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, and Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, and awaits a vote on the floor. A new clause in the legislation would also allow the law to be applied retroactively when restricting sex offenders from residing near schools or child care facilities.
The intent of the bill is to “make sure that whether sex offenders committed their crimes in 1972 or 2008, they will be required to register,” Crowell said.
John Coffman, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said attempts to bypass laws banning retroactive laws violate “a pretty basic rule of constitutional fairness.” He said the ACLU-EM thinks any restriction applied retroactively, whether civil or criminal, is unfair.
The joint resolution is one of myriad bills aimed at curbing the rights of sex offenders.
Bills restricting sex offenders from living in college residence halls and near public schools or from loitering near public parks, swimming pools and child care facilities have sprouted up this session. Other bills would make sex offenders disclose their e-mail addresses and prevent them from serving as a coach or trainer for youth sports teams.
Coffman said the emergence of sex offender language this year is no surprise.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of these type of bills because it’s an election year,” Coffman said. “Representatives want to do something to show the public that they’re trying to protect them.”
Coffman said a lot of the bills taken individually might be reasonable, but taken as a whole, they might be not easily enforceable and could needlessly punish sex offenders after they have already served their time.
Rep. Mark Bruns, R-Jefferson City, chairman of the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee and an author of some of the bills, said he supports Crowell and Coleman’s legislation. He also said the legislature should “be careful where we tread” because of issues of constitutionality.
Bruns said bills like the one that would ban sex offenders from living in college or junior college residence halls would be a simple and easy step that could be taken to protect students from sex offenders. Bruns said the college could just enter the name into the registry.
“Seems like a simple enough idea to me,” Bruns said.
Rep. Gary Dusenberg, R-Jackson County, is the sponsor of a bill that would tag the driver’s licenses of sex offenders with a special marking. A highway patrolman for 26 years, Dusenberg said he thinks a special identifier on a sex offender’s driver’s license would throw up a red flag if there were a child in the car and that it could be discreet.
“It wouldn’t be embarrassing,” Dusenberg said. “It would only be known by law enforcement.”
Coffman said he worries that a marking could be a “scarlet letter” for sex offenders.
The bill is awaiting relegation to a committee, where the issue would be further examined.
Bruns and Dusenberg both said that because of sex offenders’ high recidivism rate, they should attract special restrictions and that it’s nearly impossible to cure them.
Dusenberg said the state spends more than double to incarcerate sex offenders than it does regular inmates and still has little to show for it.
“Spending money on the sexual predator unit, it’s like throwing money in a river, as far as I’m concerned,” Dusenberg said.